Paper Digital Humanities Australasia 2018

Location is not place: Questions of connectivity in the mapping of digitised collections (64)

Rebecca Hawcroft 1
  1. University of Canberra, Newtown, NSW, Australia

Collection mapping, that is including geo-coordinates in metadata and then displaying that information visually on an interactive map, has been one of the ways digitised collections have been presented for greater user engagement and collection surfacing. A number of large collection aggregation platforms began to present their collection data in this way from the early 2000s, including the World Digital Library’s (UNESCO and Library of Congress) and eCultureMap Europeana (which locates more than 2 million items to an accuracy of up to 5 meters). The geo-spatial visualisation tool GlamMap, that continues to develop its capabilities, offers similar options for additional collections (with Trove ‘mapped’ by the tool already). At an institutional level, collection items have also been mapped; the State Library of NSW and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa include a map and location pin in their digital catalogues when latitude and longitude have been attributed to an item in metadata.

Mapping a collection would seem to offer a ‘generous interface’ (Whitelaw 2015) where by collection items are surfaced via geo-located discovery, providing opportunities to make the nature of the collection as a whole and the connections between collection items and places more visible. Despite a long term engagement with the limits of GIS (Elwood 2008) and explorations in how humanistic values can be better incorporated into GIS based maps (Bodenhamer et. all 2013), critical issues in both the development and application of collection mapping remain. What is being located in collection mapping projects varies widely and often reflects unmediated gazetteers of place names and databases like Geo Name and Google Places. The question of what connections are actually being made by visualisations of this kind largely remains unanswered.

Drawing on the established understanding that space and place are different concepts where by ‘space’ is understood as a location while ‘place’ is connected to meanings, practices and often highly subjective social constructs (Tuan 1979, Relph 1976) this paper proposes that location, as it relates to collection items, is not observer independent ‘data’ that can be easily represented visually. Rather, the places associated with collection items are full of ambiguity and uncertainties that require nuanced and experimental forms of visualisation. Following from previous challenges for digital visualisation tools to respond to social values (Drucker 2011), this paper will examine the limitations of current collection mapping practices and propose ‘place’, although ephemeral to be more connected with meaning, and hence a more valuable quality for collections interfaces to engage with.

In proposing alternatives for visualising the connections between collections and places the paper will examine the practices of narrative mapping (Wood 2010, Gibson 2014), options for the graphic display of vagueness and uncertainty (Galton and Hood 2005) and deep mapping (Bodenhamer et. all 2013), and identify how these methods might assist collection holding institutions to better connect their collections to places.