Digital Mapping

Admittedly I struggled to find a scholarly digital mapping project significantly more than I expected. As I quickly learned, digital maps mostly serve as tools that accompany larger websites or digital projects and rarely stand alone. Unlike other forms of digital history like websites, blogs, and apps it is easier to find digital maps through larger history sites than it is through a simple search engine. Often they are tagged onto a page that features several other maps, both digital and digitized, that illustrate distributions of populations, demographic data, and movement. The digital mapping project considered here, maps from the Equal Justice Initiative’s Lynching in America site, stood out from many others because of its extensive features that encourage deep investment into the mapped history. In addition, this example struck me as an interesting use of digital mapping to tell histories for contemporary purposes.

The project shows great expenses of time and money in its creation, clearly different from many digital maps produced by scholars working in history and spatial humanities. While created ultimately by a nonprofit organization, the Equal Justice Initiative had received several grants from Google in its creation. Rather than being used for scholarly or even documentary purposes like many of the maps discussed in the readings this week, this particular set is designed to showcase the previous documentation and the goals fo the organization. It accompanies EJI’s report that quantitatively lays out records of lynchings between 1877-1950 and is meant as a visual representation for public audiences with or without prior knowledge of the history. The first map counts the number of reported lynchings by states and counties between the years 1877 and 1950 and includes a range of narrative videos and texts. The second digital map allows users to witness changes in black populations across the country between 1910-1970.

The Great Migration and lynching maps present an interactive way of exploring historical data related to a tragic part of American history. While browsing through the sites, I appreciated the ability to stop and linger on ┬ánumbers and captions that surprised or troubled me. Unlike a video that moves through information at the same speed and order each time, the digital maps can be clicked through at one’s own pace and direction. There are other many ways in which this information could have been shared and conveyed that would have required far less creativity and funding. For example, static bar graphs could have technically captured much of the same information. However, the choice to present statistics about reported lynchings and migratory patterns through digital maps appears to be because of the strengths of this method of display. The ability to let users choose their own path to explore America’s history of lynching adds an element of personalization that is immensely important for such an inherently personal subject.

Another great strength of digitally mapping lynchings and migrations comes from the power of maps to illustrate location and movement. While clicking through the maps one can quickly place distributions of populations and violence across space. Yet even more than a traditional map, this digital map shows the direction and reach of movement through this same space. Most striking, the visual nature of the map encourages users to look beyond the lynching and population counts as mere numbers and rather to understand them as individual stories happening across a real stretch of land. Because of the intended wide-reaching audience of this project, this encouragement of emotional connection to the history being presented is an important part of the project.

Another way in which these maps show the relevance of the data is through the creation of a narrative – which appears less through any explicit interpretation of the statistics and more through the presentation of the two maps alongside one another. Equal Justice Initiative’s digital maps allows for the inclusion of additional information that further contextualizes and explains the patterns visible on the page. For example, in the second map, after one watches the Great Migration progress and mass amounts of Black persons leave the South in great numbers a series of plot points appear that compare the drastically changing populations in cities across the country in 1910 and 1970. Observing the rapidly falling populations in many of the same states that presented such high numbers of lynchings in the previous map links the two trends together to imply cause and effect. In addition to this, by scrolling up, one can find a range of videos and audio recordings of individual stories that recall flights from racial terror. This implicit narrative brings together two separate data sets to draw out the connections between them.While not based on any data collection or research from a university or public history field, the Lynching in America project demonstrates how historians and others interested in spatial humanities can use these tools to create narratives and show large-scale patterns in personal and targeted ways.

One thought on “Digital Mapping”

  1. I think it’s great that you found a historical map which was not produced by professional historians, as it demonstrates the various purposes to which these visualization tools and history alike can be applied. The quantification of this data and its demonstration on the map is very impressive and clean. However, I am left wanting more. The videos and information provided about certain individuals obviously cannot be replicated for each victim but providing a little more demographic or contextual information about each county would give the map more depth and more for observers to sink their teeth into.

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