Project Reviews

Shaping the West
Created and maintained by the Spatial History Project in conjunction with the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University, California.

With the turn of the century over a decade behind us, technology is long past the "early" stages. Still, technology continues to retain its progressive magnitude and weight in our society with daily emergences of new tools, devices, gadgets and programming. It is therefore no surprise that companies, organizations, and educational institutions continue to find new and interesting ways to circulate information. Stanford University is one of many institutions using technology to reinterpret historic information in a new way that allows digital medium to do what it does best: visualize in non-linear and viewer-driven interaction. The Spatial History Project run partially through the Bill Lane Center for the American West is a multi-component web project focused at visualizing history through spatial diagrams. Within this overarching project, several smaller projects take more specific looks at a theme, region, and/or genre. While some of these publications are more of an article or linear text format, others like Shaping the West are more of a theme-driven spatial history project archive.

Principal Investigator, Richard White, heads a team of research assistants in creating, molding and publishing the Shaping the West spatial history project of visualizations through the overarching Spatial History Project. While some visualizations ("What is Spatial History?") are pure narrative and photographs, others like ("Railroad Traffic in Colorado") are interactive maps that integrate space with historic quantitative data. Richard White, an accomplished western historian, leads his research team in developing visualizations relating to the 19th century American West. The project introduction states a specific scope of railroads and the economic, political and expansionist impact they had on the West; specifically in terms of land holding, commerce and communication. The creators utilize digital medium to analyze and visualize quantitative data, although the source of their information is unclear. Their specific purpose is to "examine how historic perceptions of space in the newly settled West were influenced by more than Cartesian geography: "specifically by patterns of land holding, commerce, and communication." The developers see the visualizations they create as tools to develop new arguments and questions about our understanding of history and the modern methodologies we set forth for the historical profession.

The project feels more as if it is an archive of visualizations than a persuasive argument leading towards one conclusion. A severe lack of narration and annotation leaves the viewer to make their own conclusion based on the visualizations they decide to open and interact with. Even so, if one were to look through all of the visualizations (there are twenty-four) a better understanding of the railroad's impact on the West is inevitable. The evidence the visualizations provide is both broad in relation to all of the visualizations combined and yet narrow in the specific scope of each visualization separately. Unfortunately, substantial proof in the form of visualizations is not helpful to readers that are looking for definitive conclusions to the introductory thesis of Shaping the West. Narrative would be helpful in reiterating the evidence in support of a conclusion on the railroad's impact in the West.

At first, the audience for this project seems obvious: a general scholarly, academic and professional crowd with emphasis on Western historians and students. The visualizations are undoubtedly created by graduate students and professors as principal investigators so this is understandable. However, the visualization "The Central Pacific and Transcontinental Eleven Step: How to Run a Transcontinental Railroad" is decidedly child-like in its visual representation, picture book layout and narrative. While the pictures "read" more like an elementary school student's book, the text's comprehension level is likely more middle school or higher as the information is thorough and the vocabulary is large. This visualization is a wonderful historical pedagogical tool, but its placement within the Shaping the West project and its unfortunate comparison to more scholarly visualizations magnify its inequality. For Western scholars and enthusiasts, the rest of the visualizations are excellent tools in facilitating spatial history in the West; in this way it serves the needs of its audience.

The driving force and greatest strength of this project is the content of exceptional visualizations. There is some confusion about the sources used for the visualizations as this is not clearly stated throughout the different visual digital aids. While the material reads objectively and appears grounded in historical scholarship, source identification and acknowledgement could establish it more strongly. Unlike the content, the format and navigation leave something to be desired. At first it is not quite clear which additional links pertaining o to the Shaping the West project and which are overarching links regarding the whole Spatial History Project. Perhaps some are all-encompassing statements like 'About the Project', but this is not obvious. Several other projects within the Spatial History Project use visualizations much to the same effect and some even use the same visualizations, therefore clarity of project boundaries is needed. The ease of navigation is almost problematic as the abundance of links are mostly external from Shaping the West and lead to other spatial history projects. This continuously leaves the viewer wondering whether they are still within the railroad portion or not.

Digital history is still new and emerging in our world of historical scholarship. With projects such as Shaping the West it becomes clearer why the digital medium offers history an advantage in understanding trends, analyzing quantitative data and visualizing spatial history. The interactive maps with timeline and filter options allow viewers an opportunity not afforded them in books, articles and narratives. While most understand that the country's population slowly moved west as it expanded, the interactive map, Population Density in the United States from 1790 to 2000, offers a concise decade-to-decade visual awareness of this migration. The free and highly-accessible Shaping the West digital project is a rich source for detailed railroad diagrams and spatial visualizations. The historians working with the Spatial History Project are undeniably showing the benefits of using the web for interactive, accessible and content-rich historical scholarship.

Megan Huelman
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: February 2011