Geotagging Yarns

My Mom and I are both knitters.  By “knitters” I mean we both know how to knit and delight in finding inspiration at yarn stores, starting projects, and never finishing them.  You know, like literally every knitter ever.  Mom was visiting this weekend and we, completely by accident and definitely not in any way planned by her for months in advance of her trip, found ourselves at Paradise Fibers in Spokane.  While exploring the best yarn store I have ever been to, I began to notice that the building itself was really, really cool.  Remembering that part of my homework for HIST 544 was to check out several local history sites, I pulled out the Spokane Historical app on my phone and found our location.  Sadly, no story pin existed for the place.  Nonetheless, even the hope of finding hyper-local stories like “the history of the building that now houses this particular yarn store” is an incredibly recent phenomenon.

Like its several sibling Curatescape-powered websites and apps, Spokane Historical allows users to explore stories of particular places through text, images, and oral history recordings.  When out-and-about, a particularly useful feature is using the phone’s GPS to find geotagged stories in one’s immediate vicinity.  Even when mildly disappointed to discover that a particular place of interest may not yet have a published story, other finds are near at hand.  This last Saturday, for instance, I ended up virtually adventuring to a few blocks away and reading about Corbin Park, the Spokane Coliseum, the Chamberlin House, and Broadview Dairy while Mom took another pass through some sock-weights.  It is a strength of these projects that they allow the curious to traverse time, space, or both at their leisure.  At the risk of stating the obvious, geotagged history projects are built for place-based stories; the problem is that not all of history is place-based.

Historian and creator of Cleveland Historical Mark Tebeau writes in The Oral History Review that “some stories… transcend any single location.”[1]  He cites the burning of the Cuyahoga River and the rise of Standard Oil as prominent examples of this problem.  “[P]lacing the story,” of the river burning, writes Tebeau, “at an abandoned railroad bridge along the Cuyahoga River (as we now do) may be physically accurate but remote from a location where its interpretive connections are richer.”[2]  Certainly, an event that has no clear location at which it began or ended such as this is difficult to “pin.”  The same concern may be raised for a story like “Helga Estby’s Walk Across America” on Spokane Historical—ought it to be Mrs. Estby’s home to be marked as “the” location or somewhere of greater significance to a theme such as the suffragist movement? Tebeau continues down this line, questioning whether “the story of Rockefeller… and the origins of Standard Oil [should be “pinned”] to a brownfield along the Cuyahoga River or connect[ed]… to the rise of the city’s economic fortunes through geolocating that narrative downtown.”[3]  History, as a succession of human acts, occurs in particular locations but themes happen across space within and throughout a particular temporal context.  Location-based history projects have yet to settle on a unified approach to this issue.

An even more immersive iteration of place-bound histories is the virtual tour.  While the idea of experiencing a distant locale without ever leaving home has been in practice since at least the panoramic theatres of Victorian London,[4] technology has pushed the art further still.  It is now possible to “break the fourth wall” between the user and a digital recreation of the past, having “the effect of transporting” them into the project.[5]  The island of Arvia’juaq in the Canadian Arctic can now be virtually visited by and interpreted for anyone with an internet connection.  In concert with the nearby community of Arviat, Nunavut and Arviarmiut knowledge-holders, a team from the University of Calgary captured 360-degree panospheres of the island, produced oral/video histories, textually contextualized heritage sites, and continue to work with communities and educators to share its cultural richness through the digital realm.  This project was fortunate to receive equipment donations that allow it to be shared through immersive virtual reality technology a few people at a time, but the Arvia’juac project leaders note that access to computers and sufficient internet bandwidth are an ongoing issue.[6]  This brings to the fore an issue that is not unique to virtual reality projects, or even to location-based histories, but to all digital humanities: access.

In order to engage with any digital history, one must be able to access it.  Quite simply, not everyone has a smartphone, tablet, or computer.  Fewer have reliable, robust internet access.  While this is often represented as almost exclusively an issue of economic means, there are geographic considerations as well.  The internet requires a physical infrastructure, and the more remote or rural an area, the more expensive and issue-prone that infrastructure becomes.  Solutions such as pre-loading digital heritage resources onto local computers or intranets address this on a case-by-case basis but at least provide assured access.  Computer literacy can also be a factor in effective access.  Stefano Burigat and Luca Chittaro studied navigation in 3D virtual environments, finding that experienced computer users (i.e. computer literate) were able to navigate significantly faster than inexperienced users under any conditions in a simulated geographic environment.[7]  Solutions that strike at root causes are perhaps outside the scope of the academy, except in our role as problem-identifiers, contextualizers, and advisors to policy-makers.  Additionally, the more rural an area, the thinner spread the trained historians.

Intermountain Histories is a digital history project with a massive scope.  With entries for New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, the geographic span of the site makes multiple contributors necessary.  The issue with greater numbers of contributors, however, is quality control.  The articles on Thistle, UT and Saving Jazz in Moscow(, ID) are fabulous, for instance.  They capture interest, tells succinct and compelling stories, and open the door to further research.  The Paiute War of 1860, however, is not to the others’ high standard.  Even at first glance it is suspiciously short for an interpretation on a “war,” and on further inspection reveals a preoccupation with the grievances suffered prior to the conflict with “the natives” before US forces come swooping in to bring a terse ending.  Crowdsourcing (or “community sourcing,”[8] as Tebeau puts it) history absolutely invites broad, shared ownership of the past, but must be approached with scaffolding.

Trained support is also most useful in the form of curation.  Most Curatescape sites have virtual tours available which bring together several stories into a linked narrative.  Some follow modern paths of travel, such as the Journey along the Light Rail tour on Salt River Stories.  Others, historical routes such as Lost Apache, on the same site.  Tours can also pull locations linked thematically even when not geographically, like the Cultural Gardens tour on Cleveland Historical or The CCC in the West on Intermountain Histories.  Such tours are carefully constructed to show a particular forest by picking specific trees, if you’ll pardon the metaphor.  They deploy several entries that can stand independently of another, but when presented together enhance understanding, just as many fibers of wool create a single strand of yarn.

Once Mom and I finally called “done” at Paradise Fibers and went up to pay, I saw a single framed photo behind the register of the building before the current tenants occupied it.  No caption, no interpretive sign, just the photo.  Even without anything else, the single photo publicly recognized that “there is a story here,” even if it still waits to be told.  It struck me then that there may be a reason telling a story I sometimes called “spinning a yarn.”

[1] Mark Tebeau, “Listening to the City: Oral History and Place in the Digital Era,” The Oral History Review 40, no. 1 (2013): 30.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Peter Dawson et al., “’Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveller’: Using Virtual Tours to Access Remote Heritage Sites of Inuit Cultural Knowledge,” Études Inuit Studies 42, no. 1 (2018): 246.

[5] Peter Dawson, Richard Levy, and Natasha Lyons, “‘Breaking the Fourth Wall’: 3D Virtual Worlds as Tools for Knowledge Repatriation in Archaeology.” Journal of Social Archaeology 11 (2011): 387–402.

[6] Dawson et al., “Extraordinary Traveller,” 250-263.

[7] Stefano Burigat and Luca Chittaro, “Navigation in 3D Virtual Environments: Effects of User Experience and Location-Pointing Navigation Aids,” International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 65, no. 11 (2007): 945–58.

[8] Tebeau, “Listening to the City,” 30.

2 Replies to “Geotagging Yarns”

  1. This is a really great post, well done. I really appreciated the discussion of how some stories are difficult to assign a singular geolocation spot in the curatescapes and how doing so can affect the interpretation of the story. It can be difficult to come up with a story because of the concern about the problem of where to put the location unless it is a simple story about a building or a singular event.

    Your point about crowdsourcing and scaffolding is also important. I know for the case of Spokane Historical most of the stories are written by history students, but even then you can still see the variance in quality between many of them (even though Dr. Cebula has editors work on them too), so there is a real question to ask about how can you effectively scaffold an interpretive project that is being done by a wide group of writers or crowdsourced?

    1. Thanks for the appreciation! And effective scaffolding is definitely the challenge. I’ll be interested to watch and participate as these projects develop.

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