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.