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Bringing GIS to the Digital Humanities: Defining the Spatial Humanities

Final Report Summary - SPATIALHUMANITIES (Bringing GIS to the Digital Humanities: Defining the Spatial Humanities)

This project’s primary aim was to create a step-change in the ways that the humanities handle space, place and geography. We accomplished this by developing resources and methods to allow corpora – large volumes of digital texts – to be analysed using a combination of approaches from corpus linguistics, natural language processing and geographical information science (GISc). These techniques were applied to two different research areas: a study of literature in the English Lake District before 1900, and a study of 19th century mortality change in England and Wales that brought together both quantitative and textual sources. Alongside these research activities we ran a wide range of training and dissemination events.

To enable this, we created the Corpus of Lake District Writing, a major corpus covering 80 texts by writers from the 17th to the 19th centuries. We have also brought together a range of relevant nineteenth century corpora, the largest which, the British Library’s 19th Century Newspapers Collection, consists of c.50 billion words making it one of the largest historical corpora available anywhere in the world. We have been using these resources to develop methods to enable these texts to be analysed geographically. The first stage of this is to identify placenames in the corpus and allocating each of them to a map coordinate. We have been using the Edinburgh Geoparser to do this and have developed it further to make it suitable for analysing large and complex corpora. We have also developed a suite of techniques we call Geographical Text Analysis that allow researchers to ask questions such as: ‘where is this text talking about?’, ‘what is being said about this place?’, ‘what places are being talked about it relation to this theme?’ and ‘how does the textual evidence relate to quantitative patterns?’ We have also developed cost surface analysis based techniques that allow us to recreate the routes that writers would have followed.

These approaches have been used in a number of analyses that aim to both provide exemplars of the utility of the techniques, and to develop new knowledge on a range of topics. Our historical work has looked at quantitative patterns of mortality decline in the 19th century, how these changes were represented in both official sources such as the Registrar General’s Reports, and in newspapers, and whether we can use evidence from textual sources to add additional explanatory power to quantitative analyses. Our literary research has looked at representations of the Lake District and show that although this was supposed to be a wilderness area, the emphasis on much of the travel literature is on the main routes through the district rather than in the more remote parts. This is reflected in the language used to describe the more accessible parts of the Lakes when compared to the more remote parts. We have also focussed extensively on how different words are associated with different parts of the Lake District and how this changes over time and with genre.

We have also run a wide range of events and training courses. These have included helping to establish the Lancaster Summer Schools series, at which we contributed courses on ‘GIS in the Digital Humanities’ which will continue after the project ends with possibly new branding. We also organised a range of one-day seminars, two-day workshops and expert meetings. Finally, we hosted Spatial Humanities 2016 which we believe to be the first conference of its kind anywhere in the world. We plan to continue hosting this as a bi-annual event.