On Defining GeoHumanities

Attending a number of conferences this spring, and spreading the word about the SIG, I have come to wonder how to explain this thing called GeoHumanities.  What is it?  Who are we? Your SIG co-chairs identify ourselves as a librarian (Weimer) and geographer (Grossner), but those labels are woefully inadequate; we each have professional talents that encompass a wide variety and number of label-worthy descriptions, many are folded into our DH & GeoHumanities pursuits.  The same can likely be said of the majority of GeoHumanities SIG members.  Those in DH do not fit one mold, and those in GeoHumanities, perhaps even less so.   There is no common path, nor core curriculum that we follow, however, it is that diversity of backgrounds and expertise that make for robust collaborations.  Elijah Meeks described digital humanists as ‘interlopers’ while speaking last month at the Texas Digital Humanities Consortium 1st Annual Conference.  Interloping, according to Meeks, defines DH, in that in our zeal to foster understanding we often move beyond our comfort zone into new technologies and methodologies.

What of a definition of GeoHumanities?  One book that carries that title approaches the term as, “the rapidly growing zone of creative interaction between geography and the humanities.” [GeoHumanities, (Routledge, 2011, p. 3)].   In 2009, the UVa Scholar's Lab hosted the Institute for Enabling Geospatial Scholarship, funded by the NEH program, "Institutes for Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities."  This institute was perhaps the most significant meeting of the minds in the field at that time and resulted in a Spatial Humanities Community Space In the following years, UCLA and Indiana also hosted institutes funded by the same NEH grant program.  In UCLA's proposal, ‘geospatial humanities’ is described as “the centrality of place, geo-temporal analysis and mapping for conceptualizing, investigating, and visualizing research problems” … in numerous fields.  The Indiana session sought understanding of the intersection of humanities data and geospatial technologies through the form of spatial narratives and deep maps.  

What is our niche within the greater DH arena?  Humanities is experiencing what is called the ‘spatial turn.’  We, GeoHumanists are at the forefront of numerous modes of explorations of place, describing and modeling that which is on the ground and in the ether, with a multitude of tools accessible to those without formal training in geographic or cartographic concepts.  Jo Guldi describes the Spatial Turn in a series of essays.  Digital mapping, GIS and spatial visualizations are pervasive, and ever increasing.

Is it possible to describe GeoHumanities by where it lives?  Work is done within and across a variety of academic departments, in libraries and digital humanities centers.  Professional affiliations of those engaged in this niche vary as well.  In recent years, GeoHumanities related sessions have been held at conferences spanning the Modern Language Association, American Library Association, Association of American Geographers, Computer Applications & Quantitative Methods in Archaeology, Social Science History Association, to name just a few.  This dispersion of professional affiliations was a major stimulus to creating this SIG, the goal being the SIG’s role as a gathering point across disciplines.

When forming this SIG, some discussion focused on the name, in one way defining this field.  Should it be ‘spatial’ humanities or rather, to emphasize the geographic (i.e. place), ‘GeoHumanities’?  As you see, the ‘Geo” moniker won out, due to the desire from the co-founders and Steering Committee that the SIG’s primary focus be as a gathering point and support for those humanists involved in the cartographic, GIS and related ‘placial’ endeavors. 

This SIG is now less than a year old.  What have we produced?  Where are we going?   Discussions on the member list have been few, however, those few have been quite spirited. (List members are welcome to review the archives.)  Our Tweets are routinely favorited and retweeted.  We are planning our first meeting, to be held at DH2014 in Lausanne, which will include an extended discussion on gazetteers and their development and early stage planning annotating the geographic aspects found in TaDiRAH, the Taxonomy of Digital Research Activities in the Humanities (an evolved version of Bamboo DiRT).  Through all of these activities, the GeoHumanities SIG presence is beginning to take shape.

At its essence, GeoHumanities (and DH) is about collaboration.  Interlopers we may be, however, digital humanists, and geohumanists are not soloists.  We share our experiments, learn from each other, and attempt to replicate other’s successes.  Through these activities, networking and conversations, we define the field.