I am a historian of maps and spatial use, and my research finds its rationale in a desire to better understand the way that people experience and reproduce space. My primary focus is on the cartographic production of space as a medium for conceptualizing and categorizing the surrounding world. By studying the ways that people have mapped their spaces, we can gain better insight into the nuances of their histories. Maps tell stories, and paying attention to their details opens up avenues of investigation. As my 2015 article in Cartographica on mapping in nineteenth and twentieth century Hawai’i demonstrates, taking a methodological approach offers the opportunity to do valuable primary research that cuts across usual bounds of periodization.
Importantly, my approach as a scholar is predicated on the principal that not all mapping is cartographic, or even visible. Mapping takes place across a range of media; we map out our surroundings and our pathways in our art and writing, in the way we create our physical landscapes, and in the detrital evidence of our travels. There is tremendous slippage between what we often take to be discrete definitional frontiers of our disciplinary approaches to these cultural artifacts. Such distinctions can be useful – different fields bring different theoretical models to bear – but I maintain that the work of crossing those bounds provides fertile space for research and thought. My co-authored article on treating the fourteenth-century travel narrative The Travels of John Mandeville starts with this precept, taking the book as a map and asking what that meant for questions of memory and the European relationship with the world.
Understanding the creation and apprehension of space in any time period requires a rounded consideration of mapping practice that folds in multiple types of recreated space, and examines them against each other. My toolkit for this kind of research is inherently, and necessarily, interdisciplinary. The work of geographers such as Yi-fu Tuan and Edward Soja, and Doreen Massey, as well as that of spatial philosophers like Michel de Certeau and Gaston Bachelard, are useful. Literary critical approaches to space employed by Edward Said, Raymond Williams, Robert MacFarlane and others provide important grounding, and I find guidance from historians such as Raymond Craib, Matthew Edney, and D. Graham Burnett. The methodologies that such practitioners have employed lay out possible pathways of inquiry, and provide springboards for my own research.
Most often, my research process starts through close analysis of map elements, and then proceeds to consider those elements within broader historical contexts. Frequently it is the small details in maps give glimpses of important issues, and reading maps through these details opens doorways of investigation. Often this kind of analysis sheds light on questions of politics and power; this has certainly been the approach of scholars such as J.B. Harley and Denis Wood, whose work in the 1990s set the theoretical table for a critical cartographic approach. But the scrutiny of the cartographic details also offers insight into extra-political elements of captured experiential space. Maps are, as Harley frequently noted, wholly social instruments. As such, they act as catchment basins for a surprisingly wide range of culturally relevant information. When carefully considered in their context, the specifics of mapped varia can provide a lens for sharpening our understanding of the processes and component pieces of historical moments.
An important part of my methodological approach is a reliance on digital tools and resources. While I have spent time in physical archives, both in the United States and in England, much of my work has taken place in digital archives. In the past ten years a large number of national and regional archives have engaged in sustained and continuing programs of digitizing their manuscript collections, making primary materials increasingly available online. This has allowed me to pursue research questions through manuscript folios across countries and continents in a way that would have been cost- and time-prohibitive if I had to visit the archives in person.
Additionally, I have had success in employing text-based searches of materials through database resources including British History Online, Early English Books Online, TannerRichie’s Medieval and Early Modern Sources Online, and Boston University’s Medieval English Legal History. This approach leans heavily on transcribed and printed materials, which introduce their own biases, but nonetheless offers an immense corpus of materials from which to draw. Realizing the potential of these resources requires the use of digital tools that offer new ways to process and consider information. Distance reading and topic modeling let me to examine larger bodies of data than I might otherwise, and GIS applications have allowed me to consider research in terms of spatial relationships. Digital tools have real limitations as mechanisms for analysis in themselves. They do, however, let me bring disparate resources together, and provide a space for drawing more informed conclusions about what source materials. Going forward, I see digital approaches to research as both key to my own work, and a necessary element to add to the curriculum for training new historians.