Oh, the Spaces You’ll Go!

Thomas is my Co-Pilot

At 12pm on a hot August day I took my driving test, parallel parked like a champ, and earned my California Driver License. At 2pm that same day, my grandfather gifted me a Thomas Guide to San Diego county. 

For much longer than I care to admit, I flipped through the spiral bound pages while pulled over to the side of a dark road, trying to get my bearings on the map and making questionable U-Turns in my 1990’s-era Toyota 4-Runner to get to places.

The maps bound in that Thomas Guide on the almost laminated paper guided me to many places and, in reflection, many spaces.

 During this time of my life, I worked at a local recreation center as an after school youth dance and general activities instructor, which meant I needed to navigate to many different recreation sites in my corner of the county. The precisely labeled neat pale green maps of the Thomas Guide helped me get to these places, but what did not appear on the maps were the spaces I moved through. Most of the sites I worked at were located in areas with predominantly Black and Latin families, as well as families who were first or second generation immigrants or refugees from the Middle East. These are the spaces where I got (lovingly and endearingly) teased into oblivion when the kids tried to teach me to say shlonak habibi

Also, I heard a rumor that my friend’s cousin’s sister’s best friend’s neighbor would use a Thomas Guide to pick up friends and drive to extra-judicial bon-fire parties in the rocky deep pockets of the county, where laughs mingled with pop-music and coyote howls heard across the chaparral valleys.

I share these stories of where that Thomas Guide took me (and my friend’s cousin’s sister’s best friend’s neighbor) with you, dear reader and fellow digital history nerd, only to ask this question: how would I go about exploring the spatial history of those places and how would I digitally map that history?

Wait, what is Spatial History?

At 12pm ET on Tuesday October 25, 2022, I had a pretty decent answer, a draft of my interpretation of spatial history typed up for your reading pleasure.

At 8:15pm ET that very day after an illuminating conversation with Dr. Rob Gioielli and Dr. Tim Brown, I deleted it to dazzle you the following: I know way less than I thought I did.

But luckily, there are plenty of smart people who do.

In his conveniently titled essay, “What is Spatial History?”, Richard White cites the work of Henri Lefebvre a, Marxist philosopher of the everyday, to understand the spatial bit. White explains that Lefebvre’s three formations of space, “spatial practice, representations of space,and representational space”, reinforce the argument that space is not an empty vessel or a blank canvas. Rather, the relationship between the spatial practices, representations, and representational aspects produced by humans is where space is created and how its history is explored. 

But what does it meeeeeean?

This is how I interpreted all that.

Let’s return to my story of being a lass charging around town with my newly minted driver license and crisp Thomas Guide. My workday movement of gathering together my workback, walking to put it into my 4-Runner, and then driving to work, all that movement and mobility is spatial practice. When I arrived to work, I checked into the front office then would proceed to the dance room or the gymnasium, all of which have architectural schematics and blueprints that are spatial representations. Finally, when I would walk into the Marley floored dance room, I automatically removed my sneakers, put on my dance shoes, started playing music for when the kids arrived, and a calm would come over me. This is representational space- the series of practices and symbols that elicits a feeling.

The interplay and relationship between these spatial formations are inherently historical and have a history that can be explored, but how? Through digital history, of course!

Richard White goes on to explain the use of such tools as ArcGIS to create maps and other visualizations of spatial history. Digital tools allow for scalability (such as from the domestic level to the state level and back again), temporal exploration (observe spatial patterns over tens or hundreds of years), and layering (comparing my spatial movement through the rec center versus my supervisor’s use, for example). However, White is adamant about what Spatial History is not and what it is.

What it is not:

“visualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means.” [Emphasis mine]

Richard White, “What is Spatial History?”, 2010

What it is:

It is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.” [Emphasis his]

Richard White, “What is Spatial History?”, 2010

Though I am barely tipping into the field of professional history, this feels a little dated. I am not disputing the need for distinction nor even for the protectionist language. Digital and other non-traditional mediums for doing history still do not get the respect within the academy that they deserve. However, please notice my use of the word medium. These past few weeks of reading about and engaging with digital history have left me with the opinion that it is indeed a medium for creation and learning. White’s insistence that spatial history is solely defined as research of questions that could only be generated through digitally created maps or other spatial visualizations feels a bit exclusionary and minimizes the humanistic element of the work. 

White uses the 19th century railroad time tables as an example of work that can only be explored via Spatial History. Yes, the layering of different train lines and ability to manipulate both the spatial and temporal scales is critical for responding to historical questions about the time tables. But the curiosity about this had to have started in the archive? In a book? From watching trains chug along the sandy flats of central California before winding through the mountain passes? Are these not other means? If research is restricted solely to what is visualized via map, and not supplemented by diaries, images, letters, or other correspondence, then are we reducing history to a social science (yea, I said that!).

This is a screenshot of a spatial history project mapping the routes of the Soweto Student Uprising that the lead researcher of this map, Ismail Farouk, was kind enough to share the source files with. This map grew out of oral histories and research of images and ephemera. Because this is a visualization of “discovery by other means”, is it not a spatial history?

Big “S” “P” or Little “s” “p”

Again, I understand and support the need to have clear distinctions, especially for Spatial History intended for the academy, peer review, and other distinctions within academe. But my mind is on the application and usages of Spatial History for public digital history and community learning purposes. Here is where my wariness of White’s “is not/is” definition stems from. If a map or visualization is a representation of historical research of space “discovered by other means”, but made more understandable, more accessible, and more interactive because through its mapping, is it not Spatial History? It should perhaps be written with a lower case “s” and “p”, but does that make is not a history of spatial relationships?

I wish I had a tidy way to end my thoughts. In my previous draft, I reflected more the spatial histories of Mapping Inequality, Renewing Inequality, and Pamela Fletcher and Anne Helmreich’s “Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market”, but I realized that I needed to take time to pause and reflect on what spatial history is.If I were to do a spatial history of that Thomas Guide and my 4-Runner, I do know that it would have to be a combination of mapping visualizations and “discovery by other means”. It is one thing to spatialize the practice and representation of space that I moved through during my drives to work. But to unearth the spatial history of the representational aspect of myself entering that dance room or when my friend’s cousin’s sister’s best friend’s neighbor would drive down bumpy dirt roads to sit around a bonfire requires those “other means”.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *