The Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative

by Gordy Slack


The Electronic Cultural Atlas
(ECAI) may be physically housed in a small office at UC Berkeley,
but its virtual distribution is vast due to the humanities scholars who are employing
its groundbreaking application of map-based technologies and metadata practices
to better communicate their work and coordinate it with that of others in numerous
fields. ECAI projects span the ages, too, from the depiction of ancient
Buddhist migration paths to the whereabouts of valuable cultural artifacts in
modern Iraq.
In addition its conferences—a total of 19 of them in the past ten years—span
the globe as well, with the most recent, titled “Time & Space in Eurasia,”
at the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow in June 2007.

The initiative’s ambition, says co-director Michael
, emeritus professor from the UC Berkeley School of Library and
Information Studies, is “to improve the world by making scholars—particularly
those working in the humanities and quantitative social sciences—take time and
place seriously.”

Professor Michael Buckland co-directs the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative


Humanities scholars obviously know when and where they are
talking about with their projects, Buckland says, but the place and time
references that they use are often embedded in such highly contextualized texts
that they are opaque to those working in different areas of expertise, let
alone to computers trying to sort and classify data sets from different sources
and disciplines.

“Every state in the union has a town called Springfield,” says Buckland. “That fact makes
marketing The Simpsons easy. But it
makes disambiguating a cultural reference to some Springfield or other in an author’s diary
quite difficult.”

“[If you] listen to people talk or watch them write, they do
not use calendar dates much,” says Buckland. Instead, they tend to use cultural
events to denote time. “If I say, ‘I own a Civil War weapon,’ in London, it is a 17th-century
weapon. In Madrid,
it would be a 20th-century weapon. In the U.S., it would be a 19th-century
weapon,” Buckland explains.

“Latitude and longitude and chronological time are the
lingua franca across all disciplines,” Buckland says. “If you use them, you can
bring together resources from different disciplines that do not talk to each
other in a way that would not otherwise be possible.”

By standardizing the ways of referring to place (latitude
and longitude, for instance) and time (calendar dates rather than terms that
indicate historical eras) Buckland and founding co-director Lewis Lancaster, Professor
Emeritus from the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC
Berkeley, are helping scholars to digitally process and present their research
in ways that not only make it easier to share with colleagues and students, but
that also can reveal new patterns and relationships within the work

Once events that occurred in clearly defined places and
times are analyzed on a map-based GIS, hidden relationships may be revealed and
be fruitful sources for research. For example, one scholar spent decades
conducting a thorough study of the most popular pilgrimage destinations in the
German language areas of Europe before the
Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Each destination was
dedicated to some religious figure or other; the Virgin Mary, say, or a major
saint like St. Paul,
or a lesser-known local saint. After cataloging those destinations, the scholar
put them onto a map showing both spatial and temporal elements. The maps
revealed a strong correlation between preferences for pilgrimage destinations
before the Reformation and a region’s likelihood of becoming Protestant or
Catholic after it. Whatever influence Luther had on codifying the religious
division of these areas, it seems plausible now that those divisions reflected
earlier cultural divisions and not Luther’s will alone.

“In 300 years of Reformation studies, that [idea] had not
occurred to anyone,” says Buckland. “It is hard to imagine how that hypothesis
would have occurred to anybody if it had not been displayed on a map.”

Three years ago, at a conference in Vienna, the President of
Austria, Dr. Thomas Klestil, called on the participants to help protect and
make known threats posed by the Iraq war to the important cultural sites
distributed throughout that country. President Klestil suggested that ECAI make
an interactive, map-based registry of Iraqi cultural artifacts that weaved
existing Internet-based data sources into a single user interface.

Professor Lewis Lancaster works to help scholars digitally process and present their research in innovative ways.


Soon after, Lancaster
won support from CITRIS and Hewlett-Packard to launch such a project. Using
TimeMap software developed in Australia, the resulting site, ECAI Iraq, permits users to explore the
history, cultural sites, archaeological excavations, and heritage preservation
initiatives in any Iraqi region by choosing a time-range and place from the
site’s map-based interface.

To accomplish this act of digital coordination, though,
consensus had first to be reached on just how places and times would be
referred to by all of the participating databases.

Lancaster has long studied
Buddhism’s progress north out of India
and into the Himalayas, where it encountered a
Greek-influenced penchant for statuary that evolved as the religion migrated. He
is currently working from a $300,000 Luce Foundation grant to bring together
scholars who study the history of different religions in China.


researchers typically do not communicate much with one another; but through Lancaster’s project are now working together on a unified,
dynamic, historical map that will eventually portray the evolving geography of China’s entire
religious history.

While ECAI focuses on getting scholars to pay closer
attention to place and time designations, the When and the Where, its ambitions
extend beyond that as well, into the Who and the What, says Lancaster.

“And just occurred as with our [first two] ‘W’s , the search
for solutions identified other issues,” he says. “In the case of “Who,” the matter
of “Who else” comes into play. People do
not exist in a vacuum; they have networks of relationships and the nature of
these relationships helps to determine the catchment area for individuals.” It
is possible for “who” and “who else” to be put into a GIS with temporal
connections and therefore made part of an ever growing, stronger, subtler,
widely-distributed, contextualized data base of cultural information that could
include biography.

“Humanities computing is a vastly underdeveloped
area,” says Buckland. “The humanities generally have not been funded or
supported with the equipment they could use. But eventually computing will have
at least as big an effect on the humanities as it did on the sciences.”