About the Spatial History Project

The Spatial History Project at Stanford University, a part of the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West, is made possible by the generous funding of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The project brings together scholars working on projects at the intersection of geography and history using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in their research. While enthusiastic about GIS, which offers a common framework for this research, the Spatial History Project is gearing up to move beyond GIS, to create tools to harvest useful information from large heterogeneous datasets of maps, images, and texts, and create dynamic, interactive digital visualizations for analyzing and representing change over space and time.

The project involves three principal research projects directed by history professors Richard White and Zephyr Frank and PhD candidate Jon Christensen.

The project has hired a talented staff to set up and run a Spatial History Lab in Wallenberg Hall. The Spatial History Lab is managed by Erik Steiner, who comes to Stanford from the InfoGraphics Lab in the Department of Geography at the University of Oregon, where he has designed and developed numerous successful interactive GIS projects, including a digital version of the Atlas of Oregon, which information design guru Edward Tufte called "superb, ranking among the very best atlases ever." Mithu Datta, a veteran of complex GIS projects for government agencies and nonprofits, has joined the lab to design and manage the enterprise GIS system at the core of the project. Kathy Harris and Whitney Berry coordinate the work of undergraduate research assistants—with majors ranging from history to art, and economics to computer sciences—who are engaged in the lab's projects.

This research also involves interdisciplinary collaborations across the university, from computer sciences to urban studies and biology, as well as collaborations at a distance with scholars at other institutions from Harvard University to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Campinas in Brazil.

The primary research projects within the Spatial History Project include:

"How the West Was Shaped" — Richard White's project is developing a large database and computer graphics tools to study and represent visually how people's experience of space and time was dramatically shaped by railroads in the North American West in the 19th century. The project aims to construct a dynamic cartographic model of these changes using historical railroad freight tables. The final product will be an interactive, and publicly available digital visualization of historic railroads capable of representing both absolute and relational space and a large database of geo-rectified materials as well as visualization tools available to other researchers.

"Terrain of History" — Zephyr Frank's collaboration with colleagues with colleagues at Brown University and the Cecult team at UNICAMP, Brazil has been supported by the Stanford Humanities Center. They are working to create the most detailed and complete geohistorical archive ever assembled for a city in South America. For specialists in Brazilian history and urban history more broadly construed, research in this digital archive will shed new light on important themes including slavery and its distribution throughout the cityscape, crime and visions of social control, music and the neighborhood origins of popular culture, prostitution and the theater district, and much more. For historians more generally, the project will offer tools and methods of analysis to handle complex and shifting data in a spatial context.

"Critical Habitat" — Jon Christensen's research grew out of his work with an interdisciplinary team supported by the Woods Institute for the Environment to study the feasibility of reintroducing the Bay checkerspot butterfly to the Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, where it went extinct locally in 1997. This project has used a variety of digital archives, including a large database of recently digitized botanical specimen records dating back to the mid-19th century assembled by the Consortium of California Herbaria, to re-examine the history of the butterfly and the plant communities it depends on. This project is a test bed for a collaboration using many large heterogeneous datasets to create an Interactive Digital Environmental History of California.

The overarching goal of the Spatial History Project is to create dynamic, interactive tools that can be used across the spectrum represented by these research projects-from economic and technological changes, to social and political changes, and changes in science and the environment-and bring them all together to enable the creation of new knowledge and understanding of historical change in space and time and the possibilities for our present and future that may be found in the past.


Spatial History Project
Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West
Wallenberg Hall, 450 Serra Mall, Bldg 160, Rm 228
Stanford, CA 94305-2055