Digital Mapping: Gettysburg

I would like to discuss the Smithsonian’s interactive map of the Battle of Gettysburg, by Anne Kelly Knowles. The Smithsonian’s online magazine boasts that visualizing the battlefield, using digital technology, can help us put ourselves in the commanders’ shoes, see what we saw, and better understand the decisions they made. Now let me explain why I don’t think this map lives up to these claims.

First, I know enough about military tactics and strategy to know that I, in fact, know very little. Most of us know terms like “high ground” and “flank” from movies. But troop movement is a game of trade offs, and “taking the high ground” or “flanking the enemy” are never just advantages without disadvantages. Things get more complicated when we factor in questions terrain and the comparative capabilities of each opposing side’s weapons. I know enough to know that these are really complicated considerations; and for me to fully understand them, I would need a military expert to explain them to me.

For example, why is occupying high ground considered an advantage in all cases? With projectile weapons, aren’t there cases when the high ground is a disadvantageous position? And why is being spread out, in the case of the Confederate Forces at Gettysburg, a disadvantage? Yes, the authors argue that Lee couldn’t receive info from his subordinates as quickly, but why? Why couldn’t they just use runners? And why did the advantage of not providing your enemy with a concentrated target not outweigh any communication challenges posed by having your forces spread out?

Thus, simply looking at a map that displays the topography of the battlefield and identifies troop positions does little by itself to help me understand the tactical and strategic questions at hand. But not only are these lines on the map not enough for me to understand the trade offs that General Lee and Meade faced (and not even the ground view feature), the narrative that accompanies the points on the timeline lack in their explanation of these military factors.

This brings me to my second point: Digital mapping, in the case of this project, was a tool that helped the researchers interpret battlefield events. It was not a useful tool in disseminating their findings to a lay audience. I have to take Knowles analysis of battlefield events at Gettysburg at face value, because I don’t know any better. When she asserts that the Union’s “compact position” conferred a “strategic advantage,” I have to take her word for it. I’m suspicious, because “strategy” refers to planning at a high-level of command for an entire campaign, not a single battle, (I suspect that what she meant was “tactical advantage”), but also because it just isn’t explained why this is advantageous, all things considered. Nonetheless, Knowles came to this position by reading her digitally generated maps along with the primary sources. Regardless of whether or not she came to the correct conclusions, any understanding that I’m walking away with is coming from the timeline narration and not the visualization.

In sum, digital mapping, in the case of this project, appears to have been more useful to its researchers than to the audience it was intended for.

Digital Scholarship

Every single week of this semester has been a mad scramble for me (because I habitually overcommit myself to too many things) and every deadline has come down to the wire. As usual, I am just now at the last minute realizing that a digital copy of the Leary reading isn’t immediately available through the library (neither of the databases that offer the Journal of Victorian Culture have issues from 2005), and I’m not looking forward to going to the library in person on Tuesday before class to look at print editions.

Having digital copies of journal articles and books available to me has made my own studies and research more efficient and productive. Also, programs like Zotero help me manage my notes and readings in a way that I could never do with physical notebooks. And thank God for spell check, without which I never could have made it into graduate school.

I suspect that for most scholars digital tools have changed the way they do research in a similar way. Word processing programs, search engines, digital texts, and file management programs have increased the amount of information we can take in, organize, and synthesize. I can’t imagine anyone who would want to go back to the old days of card catalogue systems, type writers with no easy way to delete large chunks of text, and print editions of academic journals.

I don’t really feel qualified to discuss the scholars who have made use of more complicated digital tools in their research. My understanding of those tools is too limited to be able to say anything useful. I came to all things digital very late. I don’t think I owned a computer until 2005, and I still consider myself a novice with technology. So I don’t have very clear ideas about how else digital tools can help me with my research, just for still not really know what’s possible. But I do understand that the internet could give me access to a lay audience that I’m much more interested in engaging with than a traditional academic one.

I’m only interested in doing scholarship if it can be useful to ordinary people. To that end, I’ve been influenced by two different models of public scholarship—Gramsci’s organic intellectual and Chomsky’s public intellectual. I think what interests me most about Gramsci is his strategic thinking about how scholars can contribute to social change. Gramsci contrasts armed insurrection (which he likens to a war of maneuver) with a cultural/intellectual struggle to create a working class hegemony (which he likens to a war of position). I think the internet is a very strategically useful place for a war of position.

Chomsky on the other hand combines a lot of anarchist ideas about anti-authoritarianism and “Cartesian common sense” into his notion of public intellectualism. I don’t see these two positions as conflicting. I don’t think I need to embrace a Leninist model of propaganda to think strategically about how scholarship participates in culture, and I don’t think that having rhetorical goals violates any principles of anti-authoritarianism or is overly persuasive (as apposed to demonstrative, which is what Chomsky would prefer).

Anyways, the internet is the place for public engagement and to whatever extent possible I would like to have a useful presence on the web, guided by Gramscian and Chomskian ideas, using whatever digital tools I can figure out how to use.


I found the readings for this week a bit abstract. The historical overview of the development of copyright law and the shifting balance between private and public interests that drove these changes was appreciated. However, I still don’t know in practice what the current copyright law prevents me from doing. For all I know, I’m violating it every time a photocopy an article and distribute it as course material. So, I’m finding it a bit hard to respond to how copyright law might pose a challenge for digital historians. 

The most obvious lesson that came out of the Lessig reading was that there is now a world technological infrastructure, most of which I don’t understand, that is tied up in this issue of copyright. Not knowing how to hack into JSTOR, I couldn’t violate copyright law even if I wanted to. Also, corporations that distribute creative content have lobbied to change copyright law at the expense of the interests of creators/authors and the public—the two entities the original copyright laws were intended to protect. I get what this means for authors; they make less money for their labor because they need these corporations who control access to distribution networks. And I get what this means for the public. Information and culture are increasingly a privilege, not a right. But I’m not really sure what this means for historians working in other roles, as archivists or curators. 

I’m probably in violation of all kinds of copyright laws with my digital archive project. Of the few journal articles that I linked to my site, I asked the authors permission first. But now I’m unsure if authors even have the power to grant that permission. And I never bothered doing a property transfer deed when I conducted my oral history interviews; and as long as I have a say, I won’t do them. Asking someone to sign a contract after a serious conversation that required a great deal of trust feels really inappropriate. Technically, I believe these interviews are their property. And I’m not sure if I’m allowed to “borrow” their property on my site, the way you borrow a friends hedge clippers to fix your shrubs. And there are probably answers out there, buried in legalese; but I’d rather proceed as I’ve been doing, hoping that it will all work out. Is this guerrilla archiving? 

Like in most areas of my life, the biggest challenge I face is money. I work too much and I’m paid too little, so I don’t have time to try to decipher legalese or hire a lawyer. Independent scholars, authors, and creators are at a huge disadvantage to institutions that own the infrastructure controlling access to copyrighted materials and has lawyers at their disposal. How can we even out this imbalance in power?