Anne Kelly Knowles loves places where history happened. She traces this passion to family trips she took as a girl in the 1960s, when her father would pile his wife and four children into a rented RV for odysseys from their home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to iconic sites from America’s past.
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“We’d study the road atlas and plot trips around places like the Little Bighorn and Mount Rushmore,” Knowles recalls. “Historical landmarks were our pins in the map.” Between scheduled stops, she and her father would leap out of the RV to take pictures of historical markers. “I was the only one of the kids who was really jazzed about history. It was my strongest connection with my dad.”
Decades later, Knowles’ childhood journeys have translated into a pathbreaking career in historical geography. Using innovative cartographic tools, she has cast fresh light on hoary historical debates—What was Robert E. Lee thinking at Gettysburg?—and navigated new and difficult terrain, such as mapping the mass shootings of Jews in Eastern Europe by Nazi death squads during World War II.
Knowles’ research, and her strong advocacy of new geographic approaches, have also helped revitalize a discipline that declined in the late 20th century as many leading universities closed their geography departments. “She’s a pioneer,” says Edward Muller, a histor- ical geographer at the University of Pittsburgh. “There’s an ingenuity in the way she uses spatial imagination to see things and ask questions that others haven’t.” Adds Peter Bol, a historian at Harvard and director of its Center for Geographic Analysis: “Anne thinks not just about new technology but how mapping can be applied across disciplines, to all aspects of human society.”
My own introduction to Knowles’ work occurred in August, when Smithsonian asked me to profile a recipient of the magazine’s award for ingenuity. Since the prizewinners weren’t yet public, I was initially told nothing other than the recipient’s field. This made me apprehensive. My formal education in geography ended with fifth-grade social studies class, during which a teacher traced the path of the Amazon on a Mercator projection map that made Greenland loom larger than South America. I knew, vaguely, that new technology had transformed this once-musty discipline, and I expected the innovator I’d been asked to profile would be a NASA scientist or an engineering nerd closeted in a climate-controlled computer lab in Silicon Valley.
No part of this proved true, beginning with the setting. Knowles, 55, is a professor at Middlebury College, which is close to the Platonic ideal of a New England campus. Its rolling lawns and handsome buildings, mostly hewn from Vermont marble, perch on a rise with sweeping views of the Green Mountains and Adirondacks. Knowles fits her liberal arts surrounds, despite belonging to a specialty she calls “fairly macho and geeky.” A trim woman with short hair and cornflower-blue eyes, she wears a white tunic, loose linen trousers and clogs, and seems very at home amid the Yankee/organic quaintness of Middlebury.
But the biggest surprise, for me, was Knowles’ book-lined office in the geography department. Where I’d imagined her crunching data before a vast bank of blinking screens, I instead found her tapping at a humble Dell laptop.
“The technology is just a tool, and what really matters is how you use it,” she says. “Historical geography means putting place at the center of history. No supercomputers are required.” When I asked about her math and computing skills, she replied: “I add, subtract, multiply, divide.”
Her principal tool is geographic information systems, or GIS, a name for computer programs that incorporate such data as satellite imagery, paper maps and statistics. Knowles makes GIS sound simple: “It’s a computer software that allows you to map and analyze any information that has a location attached.” But watching her navigate GIS and other applications, it quickly becomes obvious that this isn’t your father’s geography.
First, a modern topographical map of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, appears on her screen. “Not enough detail,” she says, going next to a contour map of the same landscape made in 1874, which she has traced and scanned. “Here’s where the carto-geek in me comes out,” she says, running her finger lovingly across the map and noting how it distinguishes between hardwood forest, pine woods and orchards—the kind of fine-grained detail that is crucial to her work.