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Creating the Big Picture " Literally " of Historical Geography

January 21, 2005

Digital maps can bring together historical data on religion, politics, culture and more, placing them visually in space and time. Their computerized animations can create customized big-picture synopses so flexible they can be used in elementary school classrooms or in top-level research. The creation of these maps is a new and exacting discipline at the intersection of social and computer sciences. UC Merced has now hired one of the pioneers of digital mapping in the humanities and social sciences, Ruth Mostern.

Modern geographers may begin with satellite photos and then attach names to the places they see. Historical geographers can't take that approach, Mostern says. I've found it's most effective to start with a list of place names, a gazetteer, similar to what you find in the back of an atlas, she explains. Then I can find out where those places were located historically.

Using this approach, Mostern completed her dissertation on the political geography of the Song dynastic period, the years 1000-1300, in China. She also spent several years with the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (ECAI) at UC Berkeley. Among other ECAI assignments, Mostern worked with the multifaceted Silk Road Atlas project tracking the dissemination of musical instruments in conjunction with a 2002 world tour by renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Another current ECAI project is a religious history of China involving over 1000 temples, mountains, pagodas and other holy sites.

The newness of digital mapping presents some challenges. Traditionally, doctoral dissertations are published in book form. But Mostern wants to distribute the actual applications she's created, which would make digital publication more practical. I may have concurrent digital and book publications, or a digital-only publication, but that's a really new frontier, she says.

Mostern also hopes to help UC Merced students apply the techniques she is using to understanding San Joaquin Valley issues like Hispanic and Southeast Asian diasporas, educational attainment, and economic activity and prosperity.

All our students will be required to complete some work in public history, Mostern says. They may even be able to create digital maps rather than a traditional senior thesis.