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Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age

Tool Review: Google Earth for Digital Historians

With tools like Google Earth, historians can construct interactive and engaging forms of history. Users can generate graphical representations of events to visually convey events. For instance, Google and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) collaborated to spread awareness of the genocide in Darfur [link]. The overlay they generated includes descriptive HTML that presents users with first-hand testimonies, pictures, the locations of refugee camps, and links to video clips. The Darfur map included an overlay that could be turned on that displayed 3D columns to visually represent the numbers of displaced persons. Teachers may speak of 200,000 displaced individuals, but to visually represent such numbers conveys greater weight to a subject. The same approach could be taken with historical events, such as using columns to display war casualties in World War II or the location and relevant information of Nazi death camps. Additionally, students could get an idea of how early cartographers viewed the planet with the Dave Rumsey historical maps [link] or explore the geographic and historical data related to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake [link].

Furthermore, since Google Earth is a map in a virtual environment, teachers can literally “fly” students through the terrain that, for instance, Alexander the Great traveled and fought [link]. The ability to see the geography raises new questions and can give students a real sense of what actors in the past dealt with. Taking the students down to the hilly coastal terrain that Alexander and his troops confronted in the Siege of Halicarnassus gives them a clear idea of what they dealt with. The included image overlay conveys not just the geography, but the historical layout of Halicarnassus as it looked in 334 BCE. Pathways can be applied to the terrain to visualize the route armies took over the land. Students could likewise examine the terrain and see battle maps of Alexander’s fight against Darius III in the Battle of Issus.

What ties all of these ideas together is not just the ability to show students something new and exciting, but for them to interact with the tools. Students are free to explore spatial information in constructing historical arguments rather than just present information through lectures and texts. Google Earth also presents the opportunity to increase the exposure to primary sources, including maps, documents at the Library of Congress, or films deposited at the Internet Archive. As we read about in Marie-Laure Ryan’s piece, “Will New Media Produce New Narratives?” (Reading Analysis 7), engaging users with interactive material (in Ryan’s case, hypertext) allows them to draw connections on their own and explore the past through a variety of mediums.

Google Earth presents many “wow” moments as well. The Lewis and Clark map overlay provided by Rumsey was one of those moments. A flat map on a table or in a book might give an idea of what they experienced, but to see the map and discover the breadth of the area they traveled. The archival record is given context not to who or when, but to the terrain and a global picture. An overlay of 1853 San Francisco does not stand alone, but connects itself to the surrounding region and gives users a greater sense of the geography and historical changes that occurred over time.

While we cannot embed Google Earth into our digital scholarship, we can certainly offer the files to readers for them to download and interact with our work. The descriptive HTML can explain key spatial points to our scholarship and include hyperlinks to categories like interpretive essays, secondary literature, and primary sources. Hyperlinking to our online scholarship keeps the project self-contained and thus contributes to project sustainability. Additionally, the XML-based KML encoding ensures a sustainable digitized collection. The interactive possibilities with Google Earth serve historians, students, and general readers in exploring spatial relationships in history.

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