Edward Ayers: With Digital Maps, Historians Chart a New Way Into the Past

Historians in the News

Historians are great at telling stories, but they're lousy at pictures, asserts Edward L. Ayers, a history professor and dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Virginia.

While other disciplines have found ways to represent complex phenomena using illustrations that overlay many types of information, Mr. Ayers says, history has for the most part focused on written narratives, linear stories that set forth an overriding argument. But since life is messy, and the lives of so many individuals are sure to be influenced by a variety of forces in ways that are hard to describe, pictures might prove to be history's next frontier.

Imagine, he says, a social weather map plotting the movements of people as multiple historical forces come into play. And like the weather maps on television-news broadcasts, perhaps the data could be set in motion, so that effects of various social warm and cold fronts could be observed.

"I think of the past as at least as complex as anything in nature, and yet we restrict ourselves to analog means of describing it," says Mr. Ayers. "So I thought, if this works for physical natural processes, why couldn't we be able to see social processes as well?"

The professor, an expert on the Civil War and himself a renowned storyteller, was one of the earliest proponents of digitizing the raw materials of history. In the 1990s, he led the creation of the Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, one of the most popular collections of historical records online. That project, which many see as a model for digital history projects, focuses on two counties in the Shenandoah Valley, one in the North and one in the South, during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Mr. Ayers has already written an extensive narrative based on his exploration of the thousands of diaries, letters, and public records in the collection. But he is convinced all those data have far more to say.

If data are gold mines of information, he is now going prospecting.

By applying new digital tools to the Valley Project, as it is known, and by inviting others to join in and add their own data and tools, Mr. Ayers is now hoping to help build an interactive historical atlas, a rich collection of data about American history. The new project, called the Aurora Project: A Dynamic Atlas of American History, is a joint effort with William G. Thomas III, a professor of humanities at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and it will begin by focusing on the current research areas of the two historians. For Mr. Ayers, that topic is the social history of freed slaves and the networks they formed after emancipation....
Read entire article at Jeffrey R. Young in the Chronicle of Higher Education

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