Two aspects of this week’s readings that stood out as particularly illuminating for the possibilities provided by digital history were the concept of an “interactive scholarly work” and the importance of scale. The idea of an interactive scholarly work has been inherent is some of the other tools we’ve looked at, but it is especially salient in mapping projects. An interactive scholarly work is more than just a static display of visual information, but rather allows users to interact and develop their own research agenda. In some cases this can produce citable evidence, but like many other digital tools this is often best used to raise questions for further research or exploration
The projects we looked at in this week’s readings, “Visualizing Emancipation,” “ORBIS,” and “Digital Harlem,” all allow the user to interact and display various data and connections, using layered searches to display relationships that would be difficult pick out through traditional means or the spatialization provided by map images. The better interactive scholarly works also tie their digital presentation closely to rigorous scholarly research. ORBIS provides all of its background data and sources, making it “not just a site, but also an online scholarly presentation” according to Scott Dunn. Digital Harlem supplements its interactive map with Blog post that explore various connections and ideas that the map reveals. This, combined with several longer articles published in connection to the program, allows Digital Harlem to “bridge the gap between digital and more traditional research” according to Nicholas Grant.
Another thread running through this week’s readings is the ability of these digital mapping projects to convey scale in a way impossible to do in print media. Edward Ayers and Scott Nesbit discuss this in connection with the concept of “deep contingency” where different aspects of social life interacted in unpredictable ways across the various different scales (local, regional, national, military, etc.) to effect individual actions and decisions.
Digital Harlem also deals closely with the effects of scale, as by mapping black life (and white presence) using Real Estate maps at a scale well beyond that typically described in text reveals and changes the way Harlem looks. Working at this smaller scale and including ALL evidence available provides a deeper and different picture. This picture is inherently digital, as it occurs at a scale that would be impossible to convey in print, and which can only be fully explored interactively with the ability to zoom in and out.
Interactivity and scale, therefore, are essential to the essence of digital mapping projects. The data available, both in amount and complexity, make it impossible to display them statically. Their full potential can only be unlocked through the digital medium and through an interactive user interface. However, tying this digitized and democratized history back to its scholarly background is key to both establish the credibility of these tools and their use for further research. The best digital mapping projects, including those we looked at this week, therefore, represent both interactive websites and online scholarly publications.