Project Reviews

Between the Tides
Created by Matthew Booker and maintained by the Spatial History Project at Stanford University


Matthew Booker, an assistant professor of history at North Carolina State University, returned to Stanford, where he earned his doctorate in 2005, to create a digital history project on the complicated relationship between human societies and nature in the San Francisco Bay Area. According to Booker, the Bay Area is an ideal focus for such a study due to its "twin character as both urban and natural." The project, still undoubtedly a work in progress, shows mere glimpses of achieving its lofty objectives. There remains much work to do.

Over recent years, environmental historians have begun to make extensive use of spatial history-which borrows geographical and ecological techniques to analyze how the social construction of space has changed over time-to define and explore the relationship between material and cultural changes. As Matthew W. Klingle explained in 2003, spatial history provides an opportunity for environmental historians to "unmask the relationships between production and consumption, and nature and culture, and thereby transcend and subvert seemingly fixed boundaries, from the local to the global."1 It was for precisely these reasons that the Spatial History Project, of which Between the Tides is a part, was founded. Its overarching goal was to create new tools to understand the connections between various social, economic, political, technological, scientific, and environmental changes-each of which tends to be studied separately-"to enable the creation of new knowledge and understanding of historical change in space and time and the possibilities for our present and future that may be found in the past."

Unlike most historical narratives, the project is not organized around a central argument. Booker's purpose, however, was not to replicate most historical narratives. Indeed, his intent was not to advance an argument at all, but instead merely to discover some previously hidden patterns and to raise new questions. In keeping with the Spatial History Project, the purpose was to raise new questions and to provide new tools for answering them, rather than to provide any definitive interpretations in its own right.

One must approach this project not expecting deep historical analysis or engaging narrative, but instead hoping to be inspired with new historical questions and approaches. The project's visualizations regarding the Morgan Company show its potential for doing exactly that. In three visualizations, the project combines bathymetry (underwater depth) data with historical maps showing changes in property ownership from 1887-1930 to gain new insights regarding San Francisco's oyster industry, both during its rapid rise and after its precipitous decline. The project demonstrates how the Morgan Company, by 1909, was able to gain a monopoly on the oyster industry by controlling just a portion of the bay's western shore and why other companies did not use other portions of the bay. It also shows that the Morgan Company's land purchases after that point were likely speculative in nature, evidencing a view of the bay less as a productive space than as an opportunity for large financial returns based on its position within the capitalist economy.

If only all of the project's visualizations were as valuable. The "Visualizing Sea Level Rise and Early Bay Habitation, 6000 B.P. to Present: The Emeryville Shellmound" visualization, for instance, is unconvincing. By showing six millennia of sea-level rise alongside a depiction of the mound's construction, the model was intended to answer the question of whether rising sea levels forced native people to raise their shellmounds to stay above the tides. Booker answers this question in the negative, concluding bluntly that "mound building was unrelated to sea level rise." While Booker did not explain his reasoning, this conclusion appears to be based on the fact that the shellmound's development, as shown in the visualization, did not correspond temporally to rises in sea level. However, this conclusion seems to flow directly from the assumption of a constant rate of sea-level rise despite the acknowledgement that the rate of sea-level change surely varied over the 6,000 years. Given this assumption, there should be little surprise that Booker found the Emeryville Shellmound's construction-the rate of which did vary-to be unrelated to sea-level rise.

This project shows the promise of digital history not only to open up new lines of inquiry in the discipline of history but also to break down barriers between history and other disciplines to offer more complete understandings of the past. As the project progresses, I encourage Booker and his team to make use of the digital realm's opportunities for hypertextuality. For example, what is now a simple list of sources used in creating a visualization could become a series of links to portions of the sources themselves along with explanations of how they were interpreted and utilized. Such a change would allow users to delve more deeply into the arguments and source material and, thus, gain a deeper understanding of not only the historical subjects, but also the importance of the digital tools to that understanding. Moreover, I encourage Booker to connect the various visualizations into a larger argument which shows how they relate to one another and to broader historical processes and themes. Doing so will allow the project to enter the historiography as a full partner to printed monographs and articles and will force even those scholars most resistant to digital scholarship to grapple with Booker's creation. There remains much work to do, but Booker has already revealed his ability to use digital techniques to uncover those layers of history that traditional historical techniques have left untouched.

Sean M. Kammer
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Reviewed: December 2009

1 Matthew W. Klingle, "Spaces of Consumption in Environmental History," History and Theory, 42 (Dec., 2003), 94.