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history and GIS

Since I don’t have any idea about GIS I will take for granted the info presented in Placing History edited by Anne Kelly Knowles. What I like about this volume is the fact that it provides not only a series of maps and examples. It also provides a background to the spatial analysis in history. So if inevitably the technology of GIS will change in the coming years, the theoretical framework will be there for a longer period. In this sense I would like to mention especially the articles “GIS and History” by Knowles and “History and GIS: Implications for the Discipline” by Bodenhamer.

Both authors are not fanatics of GIS. Both understand the limitations of this software when it comes to its implementation in the humanities. Generally, their concerns refer on the one hand to the skepticism of the historians to embrace new technologies and on the other hand to the unclear returns on the huge investments necessary to create the data sets and to buy the equipment. If the first concern is overcome by the very nature of the social and technological changes, with historians bound to embrace the new technologies if only in order to understand the very nature of change, then the second concern is more difficult to overcome.

Is GIS only a beautiful and fashionable gadget? Is is it a medium, which could revolutionize the nature of major historical questions? So far, I could not get a clear answer to these questions. Both Knowles and Bodenhamer are wise to not predict the future, but at the same time I think that when you try to persuade someone to adopt a new and supposedly useful tool you should be able to sell it more convincingly.

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