Jul 21

Representing Geographic Knowledge: Opportunities and Challenges from the Atlanta Maps Project at Emory University

Representing Knowledge in the Digital Humanities (Saturday, September 24, 2011)
Conference Schedule

Page, Michael. Geospatial Coordinator, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University;
Varner, Stewart. Digital Scholarship Coordinator, Robert W. Woodruff Library, Emory University

Title: Representing Geographic Knowledge: Opportunities and Challenges from the Atlanta Maps Project at Emory University

Abstract: Printed maps have long been a means to take a survey of an area, create inventories, and provide tools for navigation or reference. Maps create superficial representations of a space but they often tacitly record the more complex social and political history of a place in the process. As a result, maps are attractive scholarly resources for a wide range of researchers. Emerging geographic technology such as GIS offers new opportunities to humanities scholars interested in understanding how meaning is created, and contested, spatially. For example, scholars are now able to represent spatially situated changes overtime in a much clearer way than what would have been possible before. In doing so, these maps may reveal information that was hidden in text-based scholarship. Furthermore, geolocation projects are able to grow and evolve in ways that more static resources never could. However, GIS also presents some important challenges. No matter how dynamic and interactive maps becomes they will always be representations. As such, they will always highlight some aspects of a place while neglecting others. A city is a chaotic, organic space where power and resistance to power shape each other and the spaces they occupy. A map, on the other hand, organizes spaces and freezes the chaos at particular moments and from particular perspectives. The ability of a map to present the city as a controlled and orderly space is what makes it both useful and potentially deceptive. The scientific authority of GIS adds to the danger that the line between geographic data and politically situated perspectives could be blurred.

This presentation will illustrate these opportunities and challenges with experiences gained from developing a digital map of Atlanta at the Emory University Libraries. Using GIS to produce a rich digital representation of Atlanta, Georgia, the first phase of this project produced a digital map based on an atlas of the city from 1928. The map is so intricately detailed it includes everything from roads and railways to building footprints and manhole covers. Because construction all but ceased in the city shortly after this atlas was published due to, first, Great Depression, and then by World War Two, the map provides a relatively reliable image of the city as it was for the two decades leading up to the Civil Rights Era. Using this digital map as a foundation, the second phase of the project will involve building a geo-database in which the geometric features will be given both descriptors (name, type, ownership, etc.) and linkages to other digital objects (photographs, audio, maps, etc.). For example, the library holds extensive historical records from a local African American funeral home. These records document the address, age and cause of death for thousands of individuals. By representing this information geographically on the digital map, scholars may be able to find new patterns that illuminate a relationship between utility infrastructure and public health or enhance our understanding of racial segregation. Eventually, this map could be used to expose a wide variety of library resources and enhance numerous research projects. We hope that our presentation will inspire similar projects, elicit suggestions for improvement and become part of a discussion about the proper use of GIS in humanities work.

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