Technology and the Historian’s Function

I was fascinated by the Spatial History Project’s website that was assigned for our exploration this week. I suppose it was only a matter of time before technology was joined with landscape studies to reconstruct cultural landscapes of the past. My one hesitation about this new field, however, stems from an uncertainty about how exactly “spatial” history differs from other fields. The endeavor of Richard White to technologically trace how railroads affected the landscape of the American West is enthralling and pedagogically valuable, but is it not just environmental history studied with the aid of technology? Why create a new term to monopolize a method of study that could be applied by all fields?

I also found it interesting how modern technology is changing the role of the historian. Presenting historical data through visual charts and graphs (such as Don Hawkins’ “digital renderings” of D.C.), with little to no written interpretation accompanying it, leaves the intended audience of the project to interpret the data on their own. This seems to be minimizing the historian’s function while granting more agency to the public audience. This is a good thing, in my opinion, because it makes history more accessible and relevant to the general public, and will allow them to become more intellectually involved with subjects they might find inaccessible and irrelevant if only presented through a textbook. However, this inevitably brings up the issue of how to maintain historical validity in information interpreted by an untrained public. Is historical interpretation a science—like the practice of medicine—that should be done by trained professionals only? Or is it an art that everyone should have the chance to experiment with?

One thought on “Technology and the Historian’s Function”

  1. I agree with your thought that “Spacial History Project” being at its core environmental history. I think you bring up a pretty interesting topic to discuss in class, why not be outright with a projects true methodological approach?

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