HGIS Bibliography

Knowles, Anne Kelly., ed. Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (Redlands, California: ESRI Press. 2008).

Please contribute to this dynamic annotated bibliography by adding your own reviews, comments, and observations about this work in the comment form below.


Review by Damon Yarnell in Technology and Culture 50 (2009): 256-258.

Review by Imre Demhardt, H-GAGCS, H-Net Reviews (2009).

Review by Humphrey Southall in International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing 3 (2009): 203-206.

Table of Contents

Foreword, by Richard White

Preface, Anne Kelly Knowles and Amy Hillier


1. GIS and History, by Anne Kelly Knowles

2. Creating a GIS for the History of China, by Peter K. Bol

3. Teaching with GIS, by Robert Churchill and Amy Hillier

4. Scaling the Dust Bowl, by Geoff Cunfer

5. “A Map Is Just a Bad Graph”: Why Spatial Statistics Are Important in Historical GIS, by Ian N. Gregory

6. Mapping Husbandry in Concord: GIS as a Tool for Environmental History, by Brian Donahue

7. Combining Space and Time: New Potential for Temporal GIS, by Michael F. Goodchild

8. New Windows on the Peutinger Map of the Roman World, by Richard J.A. Talbert and Tom Elliott

9. History and GIS Implications for the Discipline, by David J. Bodenhamer

10. What Could Lee See at Gettysburg? by Anne Kelly Knowles with Will Roush, Caitrin Abshere, Lucas Farrell, Andrew Feinberg, Thom Humber, Garrott Kuzzy, and Charlie Wirene

Conclusion: An Agenda for Historical GIS, by Anne Kelly Knowles, Amy Hillier, and Roberta Balstad

Chapter Introduction Credits


About the Authors



  1. At once a methods text and edited collection of original research, “Placing History” is an exceptional accessible resource for teachers, students, and historians interested in learning the seemingly limitless capacity of GIS for History. For novice users of GIS, the text and accompanying CD-ROM act as an inviting place to learn the power and potential of this digital methodology. Still a fairly new historical research methodology in the early 2000s, GIS proved useful to historians interested in translating primary sources of all types into digital visual renderings. The volume demonstrates that GIS need not act merely as a supplementary tool to traditional research but rather that it might serve as the foundation of historical research itself, uncovering formerly hidden relationships between people, places, and spaces. This is a controversial proposition to purists of the discipline. However, Knowles and the contributors serve as encouraging guides along the path towards GIS and the essays do a good job of convincing the unconverted. As Knowles suggests, the powerful tools of GIS give the historian the ability to think geographically, spatially, and visually across time in ways other methods cannot; she encourages the reader to think beyond GIS as a map tool and to embrace its usefulness for complex interpretations of shared space in a variety of contexts from military history to population history, and agricultural history to social history. Indeed, the volume leaves the reader confident that GIS has the ability to help the historian generate new (and revise old) knowledge rather than simply make visual what we already know. Knowles and the contributors, many of whom are late-career scholars, have put together a must-read collection of the uses of GIS in History on a broad range of topics from China to the Roman Empire, and the 1930s Dust Bowl to the Battle of Gettysburg. David J. Bodenhamer’s thoughtful discussion on GIS and the future of History is especially exciting and optimistic, connecting postmodern approaches with GIS capability to render “multiplicity, simultaneity, complexity, and subjectivity” (pg. 230) visual.

  2. This edited collection is an excellent introduction to HGIS for historians with no previous experience in GIS techniques. It argues for the utility of spatial analysis within the discipline of history despite the obvious limitations of the methodology. Scholars who advocate for the use of HGIS methods readily acknowledge that not all sources can be easily accommodated within the framework of maps and spatial statistics, and that the visualization that GIS calls for does not easily represent ambiguities and uncertainties. However, there are also clear benefits, including the emphasis it places on space as a historic variable. Half of the chapters of this collection demonstrate the innovative ways that GIS is currently being applied. For historians who have no previous experience in computer science or geography, the collection’s strength lies in the chapters that are more historical in focus. The use of GIS in analyzing Chinese history, the Dust Bowl, colonial farming in Concord, the Peutinger map, or Gettysburg more clearly argues for the methodology to newcomers in the field.

  3. What is GIS and how can it be used by historians? Placing History: How May, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship seeks to, and succeeds, in answering these questions through a series of chapters showcasing the breadth and diversity of contemporary scholarship. The contents of Placing History originated from the proceedings of an interdisciplinary conference held at Chicago’s Newberry Library in 2004. The conference was specifically designed to consider the place, usefulness, and potential drawbacks of the use of GIS in history. Editor Anne Kelly Knowles, a historical geographer at Middlebury College, believes that the conference proceedings and the resultant book represents “mature scholarship” in the application of GIS to historical study (Knowles ed. 2008, xvi). For Knowles this maturity has been manifested through not only an increase in historians choosing to use GIS technology, but also as a shift from GIS as a novel tool for historians to draw upon to GIS reconfiguring how historians conceive of the importance of space and its utility in their research.
    Placing History is particularly useful for those new to or who are thinking about the potential for the use of GIS in their historical work. The contributors showcasing of their own use of HGIS to consider issues as diverse as battlefield sight lines and the husbandry in colonial American farming. Geoff Cunfer’s nuanced analysis of depression-era Dust Bowl dust storms demonstrates the usefulness of the software to reimagining historical problems. Historians, as Cunfer shows, have been traditionally hemmed-in by their source material, leading us to use case studies and other micro-narrative approaches to make larger more general claims. GIS enables historians to broaden their scope of inquiry and repurpose statistical data through maps to create a visual comparative narrative.
    Methodological discussions also feature heavily throughout the edited collection. Of particular use to GIS sceptics is David Bordenhamer’s “History and GIS Implications for the Discipline.” Bordenhamer, addressed why historians have difficulty conceptualising of history as both a temporal and spatial series of interlocking relationships. He also recognises that despite its many advantages, some historians due to the technological basis of GIS or the limitations of their datasets may never be able to harness its potential. In highlighting the proven uses of GIS and illuminating promising directions for future study Bordenhamer also avoids calling on all historians to use the software or to radically re-think their training in historical methods avoiding an ‘us vs. them’ dichotomy.
    Placing History offers an appealing snapshot of the use of HGIS and its ability to influence future scholarship without masking the difficulties and potential limitations of GIS as a historical framework.

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