A more traditional historian setting out to write about railroads in America would spend years immersed in archives, assimilating data, but principally looking for the anecdotes, characters, and grand narratives that make the story tellable. There will always be a place for such history. But White’s approach uses novel methods to open up new ways of telling history. White and his assistants went to the same sources as a traditional historian would have—letters, freight tables, books, newspapers, accident reports, ledgers, and so on. Only, when something seemed too complex, he didn’t cast it aside. He entered it into a database, and georeferenced it with ArcGIS, geographic information system software.
“We use Geographic Information Systems (GIS), spatial analysis, and visualization graphical representation algorithms to visually manipulate maps and graphs,” the team reports on its site. And as a result, the team could ask questions that wouldn’t be possible with analog historical tools: “Which stretches of rail were the most dangerous? Was one railroad profession more at risk of death or injury than another? How did the railroads affect settlement in the counties immediately adjacent to the railroads? What happens to these populations over time as more transportation and irrigation options became available?”