Mapping Hawthorne: Do I Need GIS?

In a recent post on my personal blog, I veered away from my discussion of the University of Victoria’s Digital Humanities Summer Institute and into a rumination on Thoreau’s place in the digital humanities. I noted that Thoreau seems to me a useful role model for digital humanists because he encourages us to take a critical stance toward the technology that we use. Thoreau worries that we’ll become “the tools of our tools,” and that’s an outcome (or even a perception) that DHers should seek to avoid.

Keeping with this spirit, I attended the Geographical Information Systems (GIS) class at DHSI with a genuine question in mind: “do I actually need GIS for my research?” My Celestial Railroad project does include a geographic component. I’m tracing the spread of one Hawthorne story through the United States in the 1840s and 50s, tracking editorial changes made to various witnesses, as well as the larger cultural response to the story found in introductions, editorials, and references to the text. I’ve already mapped the story’s spread using David Rumsey’s historical maps in Google Earth. When I described my project to a friend in a geography department, he wondered why I needed to spend a week learning GIS at all. He pointed out that Google Earth was sufficient for creating most visualizations. If I wasn’t planning to use ArcGIS’s more advanced analytical tools—if my research question didn’t include issues such as topography, population density, or other census data, for instance—then learning GIS might be a waste of time. Why bring a jack hammer to a project when a hammer will do the job?

We spent the first three days of DHSI working through lessons and practicals that taught us the basics of the ArcGIS software. On the fourth day of DHSI, I started working on my own project with Henry S. Tanner’s 1846 “traveller’s map” of the United States, which is available through the wonderful, freely available David Rumsey Map Collection. I wanted to use Tanner’s map because it includes “the roads, canals, and railroads of the United States.” Though “The Celestial Railroad” satirizes antebellum American optimism in technology—including the railroad in its title—I suspected that the story owed its popularity to the transportation system of the 1840s and 50s. That’s not a surprising hunch, perhaps, but I hoped ArcGIS might help me verify it.

I spent a while georeferencing the Tanner map: aligning major points on the historical map with those same points on a modern basemap. This process can distort the historical map, depending on how precise it is by modern standards. You can see this distortion on the edges of the map below. Once I finished this process, I added my spreadsheet listing nineteenth-century reprintings, references, and reinterpretations of “The Celestial Railroad” to the map. In a few steps, I was able to separately map reprints, references, and reinterpretations on the map, using larger markers to indicate cities where multiple witnesses appeared. I must say: when those markers first appeared on the Tanner map, falling almost exclusively along his road and railroad network, I felt quite a thrill.

Click image for a high-resolution version.

That’s as far as I got at DHSI. Though fun, did I make use of ArcGIS’s full analytical powers? No, not quite. As I reflected on the week’s exercises and my map, however, I did think of some possibilities. I sent out a tweet wishing for datasets of nineteenth-century U.S. counties and nineteenth-century population data. Bethany Nowviskie responded with a link to the Newberry Library’s Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, which is freely available. She also sent information about historical census data, but that data is unfortunately not available at my institution.

If I can get hold of that data, though, I think I could do more. For instance, I could analyze the population that lived within certain distances of publication sites. I could determine—within a generous margin of error—how many Americans lived within 5, 10, or 20 miles of a “Celestial Railroad” publication. How many Americans had local access to Hawthorne’s story?

To return to my original question: do I really need ArcGIS for my work? Maybe. I see potential geospatial questions that would require the analytical power of GIS. So I’ll keep tinkering, and I’ll keep reporting on that tinkering here.

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