Research Announcement

A Methodology for Historical Geography:  Internet Implementation*

Ann Evans Larimore
Professor emerita of Geography and Women's Studies
Residential College and Women's Studies
The University of Michigan


Sandra Lach Arlinghaus
Adjunct Professor of Mathematical Geography and Population-Environment Dynamics
School of Natural Resources and Environment
The University of Michigan

Robert Haug
Ph.D. Pre-Candidate
Department of Near Eastern Studies
The University of Michigan

        In the study of the past, especially of dynamic sequences of events such as resolved and unresolved conflicts, linear narrative and exposition techniques used in book-length text production limit the juxtaposition of text, graphic images, maps, and source materials.  These limitations shape analysis and understanding of the events that we are investigating.  Rather than forming a purely linear progression or a single narrative, historical events and processes are in fact the results of a vast network of related actions and events, some more obvious than others.  The historical dynamic of cause and effect, action and reaction, is broad and dispersed.  No matter how well this characteristic of history is understood, it is still often the case that paper-based narrative techniques of book production favor portraying such complex networks as a series of  linear narratives. The scholarly techniques most readily available to the student of history often provide a stylized simplified picture of history removed from the complexity and variety of available sources and information.  The current technological scene, however, offers the scholar remarkable opportunities to present research results in media which much better reflect the dispersed occurrence of  intricately interconnected past events.  Thus, it becomes possible to fuse the spatial approach of geography and the temporal approach of history.  When the technological scene works interactively with the research effort, such fusion is the consequence.
        This manual/handbook being prepared presents an introduction to a methodology which integrates familiar techniques of historical and geographical scholarship with maps, timelines, and other visualization tools using the power of the internet to create an elaboration of sequences of past events in the form of a web or network of actors and events rather than as a single linear narrative.  Our overall approach is ecological conceptualizing "actors" as encompassing not only human actors but all kinds of natural beings, features, and events such as plants, animals, mountains, weather events, and so on.  This methodology makes possible a certain level of creative and playful thinking:  that we be willing to experiment with new ways to organize the data and original sources for our own understandings of historical events and to open ourselves to new possibilities and forms of scholarship.  At its heart, this methodology takes recent advances in communication technologies such as the internet, especially web page design, and data management technologies such as database management and geographic information systems (GIS), to provide a new method for linking historical and geographical scholarship.  Part of this manual/handbook being prepared is meant to demonstrate how these technologies and techniques can be taken up by the historian, and other students of the past in various disciplines, and integrated with accepted methodology and practice in order to advance and enhance the study of  past events. (See the excellent online guide, A Place in History: Guide to Using GIS in Historical Research, by Ian Gregory.)  The methodology, itself, transcends the current technological scene so that changes in that scene can be integrated into the strategy.  Thus, the document to come will be more than a guide to current technology (always a moving target).
        By integrating textual scholarship with maps, timelines, charts, images, and other visualization tools in a non-linear manner through the use of the internet, the researcher is able to explore and present history as a network of actors and events, articulated in multiple directions.  Such webs of information alleviate the need to exclude information in order to fit the limits and forms of traditional scholarship (books) but instead allows from a more open and comprehensive approach to scholarly research and publication. Use of the electronic hierarchy to capture scholarly hierarchies and networks is not new.  It is well established in both a teaching and a scholarly setting.  What is new, however, is its application in developing a replicable and specific method for historical geography.  It should be thought of as an innovative method of data analysis, writing, and presenting synthetic results in which images of original documents of all kinds can easily be inserted, articulated and made visible, not as a way of simply integrating audio/visual materials or appendix materials into text.  The content guides the form of the web; and, the form of the web then may help to guide the content selected.  Interaction between form and process leads to the fusion noted above and serves as the keystone for integrating future change into an information web.
      The key to understanding the methodology presented here is in understanding the ability it provides the researcher to compartmentalize and then synthesize all available data.  By looking at actors, comprehensively defined to include not just individuals but also groups and organizations and non-human actors (plants, animals, geographical features, weather and others) and events as individual units which are then encapsulated within a web of related information, each component can be explored to its fullest while still playing a part in the grander narrative being investigated. Historical and geographical patterns are not the result of a direct line of cause and effect, but rather the outcome of a vast network of actors and events which all come together to create changes in time and space. This methodology, is equally effective at global and local scales (spatial or temporal).  Unlike traditional scholarship in which it is impossible to portray the complex interweavings of human and other activities at the level of the individual, this methodology can be taken to a very fine level of detail.  It is ideal for illustrating complex detailed networks by giving each individual actor, agent, and event which leads in its own way to the broader historical changes the historical geographer is seeking to understand, a fully developed history and presentation of its own.  By fully exploring each of these agents in depth together with the often intricate linkages among them, a new complex level of historical understanding can be opened to the researcher.
       This methodology also enables the researcher to include a wide variety of original sources within its web structure, easily viewable at a click. Documentary evidence can be included practically seamlessly along side literary, material, demographic evidence, and a rich variety of others, with each source contributing its own unique imprint on our understanding of historical process.  The methodology also provides the opportunity not only to indicate these sources textually, but also to replicate any form of evidence and put it directly in the hands of the internet reader. Primary source documents, maps, charts, art reproductions, architectural plans, and a host of others, can all be brought together into a single study, giving a much richer and fuller depiction of historical events while at the same time making the actual original sources visible directly alongside the researcher's own discussion of these sources.
        Many of the capabilities of this methodology  have leaned in the direction of expanding and, in many ways, complicating scholarly investigations.  What is truly revolutionary and powerful about the usage of web architecture in order to organize and present information is its ability to make the information presented available in many different designs and to thereby simplify understanding by extracting cores of information.  The possibilities available as to the ways in which information can be introduced and conveyed and as to where within an argument it can be placed are myriad.  The web nature of this methodology means that one does not have to make single irrevocable decisions about placement of information within a narrative as links to this information may be made repeatedly throughout a text.  Does a reproduction of a primary source material, in one shape or another, belong at a certain key point in the argument or is it necessary to present this information at each point in which the document is referenced or could be referenced?  This question does not necessarily need to be answered when using a methodology such as this because the web of compartmentalized information which this methodology presents allows for a wide variety of opportunities.
        Finally, the ability to work collaboratively is of great importance in understanding the effectiveness of this methodology. Because of the compartmentalized web nature of this methodology, it is as easy to include the work of multiple researchers into the architecture as it is to include a variety of sources and multiplicity of actors, agents, events, and source documents.  The articulation of the ideas of a variety of individuals is made possible by the architecture itself and does not have to be done within the confines of a narrative text.  As spatial and temporal synthesis of matters from the past are drawn together, so may the efforts of current researchers be linked seamlessly into that fusion.
     To develop this methodology as more than an idea for discussion, the authors presented the idea at a national conference (link to MS PowerPoint display; link to MS Word document) to get feedback from other scholars and then implemented the ideas in a small experimental workshop course at The University of Michigan in the Winter term of 2005.  It was conducted as an undergraduate/graduate workshop in the Residential College and in the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies.  We met in the technological jewel of the university, the Duderstadt Center, on the Engineering Campus of the university.  In one of the electronic classrooms, instructors had state of the art machines linked to overhead projectors (two if need be, paired to show the same screenshot simultaneously) and each participant had a new desktop computer with high resolution flat screen monitor. A technical consultant was always readily available by telephone and would appear within two minutes if the need arose.  In brief, the hardware always worked and there were none of the glitches that some of us familiar with electronic classrooms have faced in the past.  The classroom was set with a custom software load in advance of the beginning of the term.  That load set included, in addition to the standard set running on Microsoft Windows XP, GIS software from ESRI (ArcView and ArcGIS), 3D software from Discreet (3D Studio Max), Adobe Photoshop, Image Ready, and Illustrator, Macromedia Dreamweaver and Flash, and Cosmo Player virtual reality software to work with an internet browser (Microsoft Internet Explorer).  We attempted to present any software that one might wish to have.  In addition, movie editing software, scanners of various sorts, equipment to convert videotapes to computer files, and the full range of capability of the Duderstadt Center was available to us during the 3 hour class time.  Instructors and students worked together, side by side as equal participants.  Decisions made were logged in a notebook as metadata for the individual project as well as for the broader implementation envisioned in the future.  Thus, the research and teaching components became fused, as well.


    We present the general shell in which the studies were housed and display in detail one case study, as illustrative of  method.  This link will take the reader to the general shell; once there, click on the button to the case study by Arlinghaus on the Military Conquests of Suleiman the Magnificent.

When viewing this case study, note the subtleties.  For example, the age of Suleiman the Magnificent is often referred to as the "golden" age of the Ottoman Empire.   Decisions in web design may follow the historical lead; thus, backgrounds on pages were made "golden".  Note the timelines on either side of the top of the page; they are paired to resemble an abstract "gate" as an entry to study much as Suleiman used the Gate at Adrianople as an entry to his adventure.  This sort of "play" between current capability and historical context forges mental links in the viewer that are not possible in conventional publications.  Animation offers the viewer an opportunity to "see" Suleiman marching through the Danube River basin in his conquest of Hungary.  Sounds accompany the sieges; cannons, sounds of inclement weather that hastened a retreat at Vienna in 1529, hoofbeats; all enliven the process and embed it in the mind of the reader, as he or she initiates it through the action of clicking.  The purple spider lines at locales along the way represent the infusion of resources, be they soldiers, camels, horses, barley, or other.  Different sources estimate vastly different numbers for the Ottoman Army and for provisioning point locations:  the locations above are therefore deliberately abstract but do show spatial pattern and temporal spacing---possibly suggestive of added research directions.  The purple spiders fade as the army moves away from the added resource point:  floods along the way might cause camels to break legs; delays might use up food supplies more quickly than anticipated.  Independent, however, of such incidents, mere distance from a supply point means a reduction in that initial infusion.  Hence the need for another provisioning point.  The pattern of the Ottoman Army in keeping a source of fresh supplies is quite clear:  conquer near, then a bit farther.  Use previously conquered locales as provisioning points to extend Ottoman control into farther reaches. 
     Because the reader can initiate and control some of the action, there is greater participation in the historical events than there is reading a conventional book, and even more than there is in passive watching of a movie or a television show.  When the "reader" becomes the creator and an active participant, he or she acquires a comfortable spatial/temporal framework, embedded in the mind, within which to consider more intricate elements of intellectual or other elements of the past.  Music and art representative, or derivative, of the times are also incorporated as are a variety of links to various sources on the internet.  The deep layers of sublety within the web site mirror those within the historical/geographical process; links on a website suggest mental links for the student of the past to make with elements of the geographical environment.  Virtual links become reality; the past comes alive; the reader's understanding is enriched in multiple directions. Thus, one is exposed to a full panorama of the civilization of the times while also having an imprint of a complex dynamic system placed in his or her mind.  The opportunity to overlay extra materials, and enrich even further the historical geographical vista of the reader, is an exciting one.

*The authors wish to thank Gottfried Hagen, Assistant Professor of Turkish Studies, Department of Near Eastern Studies, The University of Michigan, for his continuing interest in this project and for his advice.

Solstice:  An Electronic Journal of Geography and Mathematics, Institute of Mathematical Geography, Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Volume XVI, Number 1.