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LTS and history faculty collaborate on digital scholarship

monica najar

What did the religious landscape look like in the American South before it became known as the “Bible Belt?” Using Lehigh’s geospatial tools, one professor was able to visualize the rapid transformation of the south from what was a largely irreligious society into a profoundly evangelical society during late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, and to examine the effects of that shift on political and social relations.

On Nov. 15, Associate Professor of History and 2016-17 Digital Scholarship Faculty Fellow Monica Najar gave a talk, “Mapping the Evangelization of the South 1755-1815,” at Lehigh’s Center for Innovation in Teaching and Research.

As a Digital Scholarship Faculty Fellow, Professor Najar collaborated with Scott Rutzmoser, Senior Geospatial Specialist in Library and Technology Services (LTS), to integrate digital mapping into her project tracking the historic growth of evangelical Baptist churches in the American Upper South. Digital mapping tools helped Najar and her graduate assistants compare and understand the geographic growth of evangelical churches in relationship to the expansion of civil authority.

"By creating and using time-aware geospatial data, Professor Najar is able to see a snapshot for each year as new churches are founded and county governance evolves,” said Rutzmoser. This visual representation not only allows researchers to combine disparate data sources from grave markers to religious leaders’ memoirs, but also helps ask new questions about the project’s future.

“The guiding question was to see if we could map the uneven distribution of religious authority and civil authority,” Najar said. With the use of ArcGIS technology, their efforts to map this movement was greatly simplified and transformed difficult to interpret spreadsheet analysis into actionable visual data.

Rutzmoser described how he and Najar were able to map the churches and create a graphical representation, including the time and location where they were founded. “Because precise locations were difficult to find, Professor Najar provided the best available information for each church,” he said.

“I was able to use either latitude and longitude, and either modern or historic counties to map each church. We then were able to use historical county boundaries at Chicago’s Newberry Library to visualize the location of the churches in reference to the boundaries over time,” he added.

Najar envisions that her project, the process, and its applications will be useful to scholars and teachers, as well as genealogists.

The Digital Scholarship Faculty Fellowship program provides $5,000 to faculty (of any rank or any discipline) to explore, reflect upon, and create scholarship produced with digital tools and presented in digital form.

“Our hope behind the fellowship is to encourage our faculty to explore visualization tools that might allow you to ask new questions, come up with new answers to questions you’ve been asking, or perhaps discover some things you’ve been trying to answer in new ways,” said Greg Reihman, Associate Vice Provost and Director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

Faculty interested in applying for the 2018-19 Digital Scholarship Faculty Fellowship should submit an application and proposal by January 12, 2018.

Following the talk, guests were invited to tour the newly-opened Visualization Lab, which features several innovative visualization tools, including a MultiTaction Curved iWall for the collaborative investigation of digital information at large scale. The Lab is also outfitted with an HTC VIVE system, which provides users with an immersive virtual reality experience. Those interested in a tour should contact it.team@lehigh.edu.