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Robert Ranstadler

Robert Ranstadler

Robert Ranstadler is a research fellow and doctoral student at Salve Regina University, where he currently pursues humanistic and technological studies. His coursework involves recent innovations within the emerging fields of Digital History and the Digital Humanities.

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Technological Spotlight: Geographic Information Systems

This week, I’m presenting the first installment in a series I call the Technological Spotlight.  Once a month, I plan on making the focus of my weekly blog an emerging or popular technological innovation within the field of digital history and/or the digital humanities.  The overall aim of this series is to increase my familiarity and working knowledge of the selected topic, while simultaneously generating productive and enriching dialogues about said subject among academics, enthusiasts, and industry experts.  With that being said, let’s look at one of the more popular platforms within digital history, the Geographic Information System.

A Geographic Information System, or GIS, is a computerized system used for collecting, organizing, and presenting data about the people and objects that occupy the surface of our planet.  The distinguishing feature of most Geographic Information Systems are their ability to transpose multiple layers of information over a single map or chart.  Geographic Information Systems rely upon data gathered from a variety of sources, such as Global Positioning Systems, topographic software, historical data, and various dedicated networks.  Common applications of this technology include environmental mapping, archaeology, seismological studies, and oceanographic research.

GIS model

The GIS World Model.

Although only recently achieving mainstream status within the fields of the digital history and the digital humanities, GIS is hardly a nascent technology.  Experts typically identify the late geographer, Roger Tomlinson, as the creator of GIS.  Tomlinson, who in the late 1960s was working for a Canadian aerial survey company, had a chance meeting with Lee Pratt, then head of the Canada Land Inventory (CLI).  Tomlinson listened to Pratt’s ambitious plan to completely rework and consolidate the thousands of maps used in inventorying over 2.5 million square miles of rural Canadian mountains and woodlands.  The pair eventually collaborated on the project, which resulted the creation of the first operational GIS.


Dr. Roger Tomlinson, creator of GIS.

Since its inception during the late twentieth-century, educators and academics have incorporated GIS into their studies in a variety of intriguing and exciting ways.  In 2014, for instance, the White House presented a STEM initiative to provide free GIS software to every public school across the nation.  In more recent news, the University of Central Florida teamed up with educators and technology experts to teach elementary school students about the vast potential of GIS and drones.  A bold project, that I’ve been following on LinkedIn, even involves consolidating data from British Royal Navy logbooks and charting the historical passages of WWI-era warships.

HMS Perth

HMS Perth, part of the GIS project.

The sky is the virtual limit for the future of GIS and its manifold commercial, private, and academic applications.  Please feel free to explore the wide array of projects currently emerging within this field and share them here at The Digitorian.

Want to Know More?

GIS (Geographic Information System):

Stanford Geospatial Center:

The Smithsonian’s History of GIS:


Digital History and the Digital Humanities: The Current Debate

A succinct description of Digital History is “an approach to examining and representing the past that works with the new communication technologies of the computer, the internet network, and software systems.”[1]  This comprehensive explanation contextually orients the reader, but what are the practical implications of such pithy observations?  In other words, what does it realistically mean to practice and create digital history rather than, say, performing traditional academic research?

I extracted the above-excerpt from a 2009 American Historical Association article penned by Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas, two scholars synonymous with Digital History and its parent discipline, the Digital Humanities.  Both began practicing their respective crafts before the birth of the World Wide Web, eventually experimenting with digital history techniques and methods in the early 1990s.  This proved an incredibly transitive era, which thrust academia headlong into the Information Age by the turn of the 21st century.  Seefeldt and Thomas agree that there are two specific components to Digital History.  In one sense, it’s a venue that encourages and facilitates the robust exchange of scholarly ideas on an unprecedented level.[2]  On the other hand, it’s also an entirely new methodological approach to studying the past.[3]  These two attributes led historians to experiment with previously unfamiliar techniques, such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping, spatial analysis, digitization, and a variety of other cutting-edge methods.

In 2012, five MIT scholars collaborated to produce an original work aimed at explaining the inception, evolution, and practical application of their nascent and arguably abstract academic discipline.  Their book, Digital_humanities, addresses pressing concerns about the academic and professional standards of a field wholly accessible to the general public.  They argue that enthusiastic non-specialists, unfamiliar with the rigors of achieving and maintaining objective academic accuracy, could potentially and unwittingly dilute the credibility of humanistic studies.[4]  Anne Burdick et al. stress that the Digital Humanities is/are predicated upon “a concern with textual analysis and cataloging, the study of linguistic features, an emphasis on pedagogical supports and learning environments, and research questions driven by analyzing structured data.”[5]  The overall implication is that there exists a critical distinction between traditional humanism, born out of the ancient western philosophy, and today’s digital studies—entirely new branches of the liberal scholarship with their own unique orthodoxies and methodologies.

The unique relationship between the Digital Humanities and the public prompted the implementation and development of a whole new field of digital pedagogy, which PC Magazine contributor William Fenton discussed earlier this year in his article, “Digital Humanities: The Most Exciting Field You’ve Never Heard Of.”[6]  Similar to the preceding works, Fenton’s contribution focuses upon the nascent characteristics of digital scholarship and the persistent issues that trouble today’s digital humanists.  “[D]igital humanities,” according to Fenton, “is an interdisciplinary field in which scholars and educators bring computational tools and methods to humanistic inquiry.”[7]  Concerns over media literacy stand at the forefront of many interdisciplinary debates, with an emphasis placed on identifying the critical distinctions between genuine academic research and more teleological studies, crafted with specific ideologies in mind.

So where does this leave digital humanists and historians?  Is Digital History just another avenue from which to approach the past, or is it instead a new type of distinctly independent historiographic scholarship?  Should the digital humanities be subject to public conveyances at the risk of academic integrity?  These questions lack definitive answers, but one thing is certain: Society has entered a new realm of liberal awareness—one not confined to classrooms or archives—accessible to an unprecedented number of enthusiasts, ideologues, and non-specialists.  Only time will reveal the consequences of this paradigm shift within liberal scholarship and humanistic studies.

Please feel free to share your thoughts and opinions by commenting on this post or via a tweet @Digitorian.  Alternatively, contact me on LinkedIn at: or email me at:


Want to know more?

The Digital History Project:

GIS (Geographic Information System):

HyperStudio: Digital Humanities at MIT:

PC Magazine and Education:



[1] Douglas Seefeldt and William G. Thomas, “What Is Digital History?” Perspectives on History, accessed June 10, 2017,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Anne Burdick et al., Digital_humanities (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012), vii, PDF e-book, accessed June 10, 2017,

[5] Ibid., 8.

[6] William Fenton, “Digital Humanities: The Most Exciting Field You’ve Never Heard Of,” PC Magazine, accessed June 10, 2017,

[7] Ibid.

First Post Coming Soon!

Thanks for stopping by!  Please feel free to look around and explore my About page.  Check back later next week, when we’ll try to answer the question, “What exactly is Digital History?”

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