Once Upon a Place: Telling Stories With Maps

Neatline, a project from the University of Virginia, demonstrates that digital history is about more than big data: It's about uncertainty, nuance, and meaning.



Maps are not neutral. They have political resonances. When you point the plots of an explorer's journey on a generic online map, the familiar format flattens the stories, giving the map the illusion of authority and turning history into just another map layer. But what if you made a mapping tool that allowed for nuance and uncertainty?

To present your ambiguous stories, the Scholars' Lab at the University of Virginia Libraries has made Neatline, an open-source geo-temporal visualization tool. Neatline, which launched last week, is a plugin for the popular collections exhibit software Omeka (which was developed by another university digital humanities shop, the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University). It gives users the opportunity to tell stories through historic maps, timelines, and short text pieces: three dimensions of interpretation. (A fourth dimension, longform essays, is on its way.) It's also a small contribution to the rethinking of what counts as humanities scholarship.

In contrast to the sometimes totalizing results of Big Data analysis, Neatline takes a "small data" approach to digitized materials, allowing users to contextualize their unique cultural heritage materials while reading deeply into their nuances. I spoke to Bethany Nowviskie, director of the Scholar's Lab (and a colleague) via email, and she was eloquent about the enduring value of close analysis of historical artifacts, even in an atmosphere of abundance of digitized materials.

"The big-data discoveries that have most excited me, as a scholar," said Nowviskie, "haven't been expressions of large-scale trends or conclusions drawn from human experience in the aggregate. They've been the chances we've had to drill down, through large collections, to individual objects and stories. My curiosity is often deeply localized to a certain artifact (or document, or set of concepts) as encountered in a certain time, at a certain place -- and the closer you look at it, the more the edges of that certainty become the interesting thing. You get provoked to tell a story, or better yet, to figure out what kind of story it's possible for you to tell."

Scholars' Lab staff produced a number of Neatline demos for launch. One is an exploration of the Civil War battle of Chancellorsville as seen in a historic map annotated by a contemporary (battle maps may turn out to be Neatline's core competency). Another project explores H.P. Lovecraft's Providence through his letters and a map of the Providence he experienced while creating his own phantasmagorical landscapes. Both are fluid, sliding you back and forth through time and space while an interpretive voice helps illuminate what the map means and can mean.

In Neatline, Nowviskie said, "we wanted to set up an environment in which you could make meaning, in an iterative way, by selecting and positioning and annotating and even drawing directly on the set of artifacts you're interpreting. But that work needed to respect, as much as possible, the levels of certainty we have when we talk about history or literature: so, for instance, our timelines needed to incorporate ambiguity sliders, and our maps and drawing tools needed to be selectively semi-transparent. The cumulative effect is a very hand-crafted feel -- which is good, because we wanted to push a little against the sense that digital maps and timelines are only for passive, dense, algorithmically-generated data visualization -- created by somebody else, not you."

There's a sandbox version available for people wanting to try out Neatline without wanting to install Omeka. "You don't need deep technical skills to use Neatline -- you just need an imagination for the kinds of stories you might tell, and a willingness to sketch and arrange your way to new interpretations," said Nowviskie. She expects that scholars, students, and cultural heritage professionals will be Neatline's early users, though it's open to everybody and could be used for community projects that need both a map and a timeline. This tool for making beautiful, complicated things is an argument for the value of the small, unique, and strange. It's also an assertion that uncertainty, too, can be plotted on a map.

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Suzanne Fischer is a historian of science and technology. She serves as curator of technology at The Henry Ford.

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