I’ve had a particularly interesting experience these last few weeks squaring off against Omeka Neatline as well as beginning to consider some of the limits of not only what digital maps can do, but what they ought to be able to do. It all started, of course, with the basic task of learning to use a new mapping platform – I use “basic” in a very conceptual, turning the page sense, because anyone who has attempted to adopt digital humanities research methods after academic training which emphasized a return to print and book sources will understand that there is never anything simple about learning to use an entirely new platform. In many ways, the process is similar to learning a new language; an easy decision to begin, but a road with many ups and down along the way.

At any rate, I had decided earlier in the month to take the rudimentary information and cartographic outline of the “Slave Songs of the United States” and transpose these into Omeka Neatline. My experience with mapping platforms has been hitherto limited to GoogleMaps and some flirtation with ArcGIS; Omeka does not resemble Google Maps in the slightest, at least on the first few meetings. For those who have not had the pleasure, Omeka is to Google Maps what a baked brie en croute is to a grilled cheese sandwich. Both involve metadata which often results in points on a map, the metaphorical cheese and starchy bread item, but with Omeka, the map-maker must visualize the entire end product before deciding to launch it, while the grilled cheese sandwich of Google Maps could, in theory, be taken apart from the front end as well as the back.

What I mean to say by this metaphor is that using Omeka has made me reconsider the often heady launch into the actual map-making in digital form which these platforms tend to excite. Instead, I am taking the advice of one much wiser in GIS-related issues and heading back to the drawing board – yes, the actual drawing board of pen, paper, and fingers. I currently have several sketches of differing quality spread across my desk illustrating what I want out of a revised map of the “Slave Songs of the United States.”

Why is this important?

This exercise has reminded me that, despite our access to digital tools which transform the user experience of humanities research and teaching, the creation of digital humanities resources still requires basic, hand-mine conceptualization. The clearer the concept, the better the end map will be from a pedagogical standpoint. Unlike a digital map of a living city or live twitter feed, some of which can be accessed from our own annotations, digital maps of historical phenomena like the “Slave Songs of the United States” do not easily lend themselves to a Hypercities format in which the information for the map is crowd sourced and the result attempts to be as free of creator bias as possible. Because I’m delving into the past, I automatically curate my conclusions based on the research available; with a topic such as “Slave Songs,” it’s not difficult to imagine some of the inherent biases.

Stepping away from the digital side of this project can be helpful as a way to appreciate the biases present in a curated map. Moreover, by drawing out the concept, the map maker conducts an exercise in critical spatial thinking which will improve their understanding of the map and therefore improve the user experience. Diana Sinton of Cornell University characterizes spatial thinking as “an ability to visualize and interpret location, position, distance, direction, relationships, movement and change through space and over time,” adding that critical spatial thinking involves combining spatial thinking with the critical processes of inquiry, evaluation, and synthesis (Sinton et al 2013). As movers through space, I would posit that we, as human beings, unconsciously use spatial thinking and awareness every day; few of us stop to deliberate on it, though, until we find ourselves lost in the deserts of Nevada.

What I am finding, then, it that it’s very easy to move too quickly into the digital part of the digital humanities; slowing down to consider how digitization will transform our research and the ability to reflect on the intersections of time and spatial organization in historical research allows us to put forth more thoughtful, and hopefully more useful resources. With the “Slave Songs” map in particular, I hope that stepping back to the drawing board (or my sketchbook, as it were) will help me come to terms with the biases and limitations of my original source material as well, and let me revise its presentation.