There, she did editing work and after marrying and moving to Chicago, she worked for textbook publishers. One of her assignments was developing a text that told U.S. history through maps. The consulting editor was a University of Chicago geographer who conceived and compiled 110 maps and took Knowles on field trips. “I was blown away,” she says. “Mapping history brought everything to ground and showed me how history resides in the landscape.”
This led her to graduate study in geography at the University of Wisconsin, a teaching stint in Wales, a postdoctorate at Wellesley College, and a lonely period when she couldn’t find a job and formed her own community of like-minded scholars, devoted to the historical application of GIS. This was also the period when she conceived her breakthrough study of Gettysburg. “I was unemployed, down in the dumps, and was brushing my teeth one morning when I thought, what could Lee see, actually? I knew there was a GIS method, used to site ski runs and real estate views, and wondered what would happen if I applied that to Gettysburg.”
Though she’s now been ensconced at Middlebury for a decade, Knowles continues to push boundaries. Her current project is mapping the Holocaust, in collaboration with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and a team of international scholars. Previously, most maps of the Holocaust simply located sites such as death camps and ghettos. Knowles and her colleagues have used GIS to create a “geography of oppression,” including maps of the growth of concentration camps and the movement of Nazi death squads that accompanied the German Army into the Soviet Union.
The first volume of this work is going to press next year, and in it, Knowles and her co-writers acknowledge the difficulty of using “quantitative techniques to study human suffering.” Their work also raises uncomfortable questions about guilt and complicity. For instance, her colleagues’ research shows that Italians may have been more active in the arrest of Jews than commonly acknowledged, and that Budapest Jews, wearing yellow arm-bands, walked streets occupied by non-Jewish businesses and citizens rather than being sequestered out of sight.
Knowles hopes the ongoing work will contribute not only to an understanding of the Holocaust, but also to the prevention of genocide. “Mapping in this way helps you see patterns and predict what may happen,” she says.
More broadly, she believes new mapping techniques can balance the paper trail that historians have traditionally relied on. “One of the most exciting and important parts of historical geography is revealing the dangers of human memory.” By injecting data from maps, she hopes historical geography will act as a corrective and impart lessons that may resonate outside the academy. “We can learn to become more modest about our judgments, about what we know or think we know and how we judge current circumstances.”
Knowles is careful to avoid over-hyping GIS, which she regards as an exploratory methodology. She also recognizes the risk that it can produce “mere eye candy,” providing great visuals without deepening our understanding of the past. Another problem is the difficulty of translating complex maps and tables into meaningful words and stories. GIS-based studies can, at times, be about as riveting to read as reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Aware of these pitfalls, Knowles is about to publish a book that uses GIS in the service of an overarching historical narrative. Mastering Iron, due out in January, follows the American iron industry from 1800 to 1868. Though the subject matter may not sound as grabby as the Holocaust or Gettysburg, Knowles has blended geographical analysis with more traditional sources to challenge conventional wisdom about the development of American industry.
Like so much of Knowles’ work, the book sprang from her curiosity about place and past—an almost mystical connection she feels to historic ground. Years ago, while researching Welsh immigrants in Ohio, she visited the remains of an early 19th-century blast furnace. “It was draped in vines and seemed like a majestic ruin in the Yucatán. Something mighty and important, full of meaning and mystery. I wondered, how was that machine made and used, how did it work, how did people feel about it?”
Finding answers took years. Working with local histories, old maps and a dense 1859 survey called The Iron Manufacturer’s Guide (“one of the most boring books on earth,” Knowles says), she painstakingly created a database of every ironworks she could locate, from village forges to Pittsburgh rolling mills. She also mapped factors such as distances from canals, rail lines, and deposits of coal and iron ore. The patterns and individual stories that emerged ran counter to earlier, much sketchier work on the subject.