ACRL WESS/MAGERT Conference Program:

Mapping the Future of Historical Scholarship about Europe

By Rebecca Malek-Wiley

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2002, Vol. 26, no. 1

Association of College & Research Libraries
American Library Association


9 September 2002

Mapping the Future of Historical Scholarship about Europe

The 2002 WESS Conference Program, Mapping the Future of Historical Scholarship about Europe," focused on exploring and supporting new directions in interdisciplinary historical research on Europe based on electronic geographical resources. The speakers presented outstanding interdisciplinary digital projects in mapping and related data creation, conversion, and analysis, while discussing the challenges involved in making such complex online sources accessible to a wide range of users. Co-sponsored by MAGERT, ALA's Map and Geography Round Table, the program offered an opportunity for collaboration with cartographically and geographically minded colleagues outside WESS.

Karl Longstreth, the first speaker, is Map Librarian at the University of Michigan's University Library and Director of the University s China Data Center. In "The Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (ECAI) and European Historical Scholarship," he discussed the value of online geographic information in interdisciplinary research and teaching. He defined the thematic scope broadly to include "anything that has a time and space component -- and I think, essentially, everything does" -- and the geographic scope fluidly, pointing out the changing conceptions and interconnections of Europe over time.

Humphrey Southall is Reader in Geography at the University of Portsmouth, England, and Director of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project. His presentation, "Redefining the National Memory: The Great Britain Historical GIS Project," outlined the expansion of this massive resource for British historical geography of the 19th and 20th centuries. It has developed from a specialized academic research project into an extensive collaborative program funded to create a national public resource providing "a vision of Britain through time" for lifelong learners.

(For more information about the presentations, please see the PowerPoint slide show at

Moderator Richard Hacken is European Studies Bibliographer, Brigham Young University library, compiler of EuroDocs, and a long-term active WESS member. He deftly tied together the speakers' themes in an introduction steeped in geographic metaphor. He observed that "people and nations make their own geographies as well as their own histories. ... The process of transforming space into place must be part of what it means to be human." In the study of this process, based on modeling using geographic information systems (GIS), maps can be manipulated, deconstructed, and re-formed, providing data with new meaning.

The presentations complemented each other well. Longstreth's contribution reflected a more conceptual and meditative approach -- considering such themes, along the way, as the transmutation of the static into the dynamic and an understanding of place in terms of culturally conditioned topological relationships -- while Southall's placed more emphasis on the pragmatic, as it dealt with pressing organisational, funding, and access issues. The former touched on an international selection of projects covering millennia, while the latter delved into a single national one concentrated on two data-rich centuries.

For all the differences, however, there were significant elements in common. Both speakers discussed the value of innovative combinations of quantitative and qualitative information in multiple formats. For example, while the Great Britain Historical GIS Project was initially based on statistical, demographic data, project developers have more recently been incorporating sources such as travel narratives and scanned historical images. Longstreth described one project that combined maps, text, still images, and film about Berlin to develop an interactive narrative of the city. Such projects, supported by relational databases enhanced by effective metadata, can aid both visualisation and analysis. Both highlighted the potential for applying new technology to expand the range of questions that we can explore, the juxtapositions and interconnections that can be made, and the variety of people whose imaginations can be fired -- including not only researchers in diverse fields but also schoolchildren, university students, adults interested in local history, and more. At the same time, underlying the technical framework, both approaches were rooted in deep respect for scholarship.

Running throughout the program were connections among disciplines and professions. Librarians could take note that while Southall, as a historical geographer, began his project from a different field and direction, he has been grappling with concerns quite familiar to us. Examples are the technological, design, and access issues involved in making information in electronic resources available to the public, including the need for adequate, long-term funding and planning and the value of appropriately detailed metadata standards and systematic cataloguing. (He has indeed recruited a project librarian.) As for Longstreth's presentation, it called to mind an image of the librarian as a latter-day Renaissance figure; along with geography, cartography, history, and computer science, it drew upon philosophy, art history, literary criticism, urban studies, environmental studies, pedagogy, geometry, and natural history.

Following the presentations, audience members jumped in with many questions, which prompted enlightening discussion. Topics on electronic resources for historical geography included:

Types of research questions that they support
The evaluation of their authoritativeness
The importance of usability testing
Methods for bringing together scholars, educators, and students from disparate disciplines in developing seminars using them.
Projects in Continental Europe comparable to the Great Britain Historical GIS Project

Well over 100 people attended the Monday morning program, including MAGERT members and others intrigued by the topic in addition to WESS stalwarts. For many, as WESS Chair Barbara Walden pointed out in her opening welcome, the theme represented an unfamiliar dimension in historical studies. We came away having learned more about how electronic geographical resources are contributing to illuminating developments in research on European history, with new insights into the compelling interaction of past and future, technology and scholarly imagination, time and place.

Last reviewed:  September 9 2002