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Collaborative Strategies for the Spatial Humanities

Spatial humanities represents a new interdisciplinary approach to the sorts of questions asked by humanists. It redirects many of the tools and methods of information scientists—data mining, advanced visualization, spatial analysis, serious gaming, etc.—to problems of history and culture from ancient to modern times. In doing so, it asks humanities scholars to do something quite foreign to their training: collaborate. This new field depends upon the ability of researchers from many disciplines to learn from each other and to use a team-based approach to solving problems. It is a recognition of the truth voiced decades ago by American humorist Will Rogers: “Everybody is ignorant, only in different subjects.”

While drawing on the expertise of others, collaboration also poses a challenge: where do you find the experts who will partner with you? A traditional way to make connection is through professional associations, especially their internal networks, for example, the historical GIS network of the Social Science History Association. Over the past two decades an expanded version of this formal networking strategy took shape in the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative, in which hundreds of scholars and institutions across four continents with interests in a particular form of knowledge—a digital cultural atlas—joined to advance the field. (Polis has been part of ECAI since 2000.) While each of these forms of collaboration have certain strengths—you develop relationships and knowledge of what is happening elsewhere—each also has certain drawbacks: you meet sporadically, your preferred collaborator has other institutional commitments or professional priorities, or the legal or cultural barriers to working together are too high.

We are experimenting with two different approaches to collaboration. In 2008, we saw enough similarity between our interests in this new field and the work of researchers at two other universities—West Virginia University and Florida State University—that we formed the Virtual Center for Spatial Humanities. The partnership was built first on a common agenda and personal relationships, and then cemented by projects that, in the main, were developed virtually through a careful division of work and a management plan that involved regular communication using Skype and other collaborative technologies.

A second strategy begins this summer with an effort to create an international network of expert centers, each with a specialization required by the field. The problem we all face is advances in computing that quickly makes technical knowledge obsolete. If we knew that enough people at key institutions or in key areas were working on certain problem, say, data mining, then we could turn to them for the expertise we need—at the time we need it.

An internal grant from the IUPUI international development fund will permit me to meet with teams from three foreign centers that have begun to distinguish themselves for their work in specific areas of the spatial humanities. Meertens Institute in Amsterdam is part of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences, though which much effort in advanced visualization for the digital humanities already has occurred. Lancaster University (UK) has a large EU grant to link GIS with text mining using computational linguistics; a workshop in mid-July should reveal whether it can serve as a node in an emerging network devoted to the spatial humanities. Similarly, a traveling fellowship from the University of Queensland in August will allow an exploration of how the work of Australian scholars in real and imagined landscapes (for instance, the Never Never or Outback) can contribute to scholars who are concerned with both forms of space.

What is clear is that we need new ways to collaborate but also new structures to tap the emerging concentrations of strengths that the complex field of spatial humanities will require as it matures. A network of expert centers offers significant potential to build depth and breadth simultaneously. Ultimately, a mature spatial humanities will need both.

David J. Bodenhamer, Executive Director


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