Throughout the past couple of weeks of reading, discussion, and conversation, we’ve explored several different reasons why students and scholars choose to make and use digital maps. Recently we’ve been able to articulate some of these potential “goal areas” of DH mapping, either for our projects or for the projects we’ve been learning about:
- To act as an archival/database interface: In other words, to be used as a reference resource by other researchers. This is the main goals of Todd Decker’s in-progress “Race on Broadway” project,1
for example. The practice of “mapping the archive can also have a related goal: inspiring research questions that can be explored by other scholars. Prioritizing this goal could mean prioritizing share-ability or making data open-source.
- To make arguments: Our conversations with Harmony Bench, Kate Elswit,2 and Diana Sinton3
underscored the fact that for many researchers, mapping should reveal a unique spatial argument. The question at hand here is, “What question does this map answer, and how does it answer it better than a different medium would?”. This approach prioritizes spatial analysis as an important function of digital mapping. Some other writers take a different approach to argument.
- To promote “scholarly activism”: Digital map-making can be a way of critiquing older methods of scholarship. The information in archival collections often intensely privileges one perspective at the expense of others, and mapping can quickly reveal the gaps and inequalities inherent in an archive.4
In a different sense, digital maps could be “activist” by addressing a social issue via an accessible, shareable, and potentially impactful platform.
- To act as a pedagogical tool: Digital maps can be used to educate both the map user and the map maker. Our initial project goals focused more explicitly on the former, since we wanted to provide a source where other students could learn more about music history. However, since we ourselves are students, it is evident that we are “mapping to learn”: digital mapping helps us learn about the research process and about new ways of thinking spatially.
- To provide an immersive or affective experience: This approach foregrounds an approach to describing history that is less “argumentative” in the scholarly sense, and seeks more to connect with an experiential way of learning. Taking a virtual “stroll” through history can result in a conception of the subject that is very different from the way it is traditionally presented in scholarly texts. The Hypercities project emphaisizes this approach to immersion, and authors like Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht5
provide a model for what non-argumentative, highly contextualized histories could look like. Creating experiential digital maps can go hand-in-hand with other goals as well. For example, our CURI presentations from the summer of 2016 emphasized how our maps render immersion and imagination pedagogically effective.
My own project, which currently focuses on Josephine Baker’s life, performance career, and influence during the 1920s, falls on the more immersive/pedagogical end of the spectrum rather than on the analytical/argumentative end of things… probably. To me, the big advantage of digital maps is the potential to present a lot of topically-related media in one place. For my topic, it seems like the strength of the digital platform is that it allows us to move beyond what descriptive text is capable of on its own. I’m anticipating that my map will prioritize the incorporation of related media such as sound clips, videos, programs, and archival photos, since these are elements that are limited to the digital sphere, and can’t really be replicated in plain text. Yet it is clear, particularly when looking at Baker’s years touring in Europe and South America, that geography and space is a central element here. Perhaps a “unique spatial argument” will someday emerge…