Geospatial Storytelling through Legacies of Labor

Legacies of Labor opens with the aim to “shed[] light on the rich history of the Lebanese immigrant working class” from “between the 18790s and 1930s” in order to “reclaim[] these stories” from the popular “peddler myth.” Developed in ArcgIS StoryMaps by the main staff of the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State University, Legacies of Labor represents the culmination of a number of other projects surrounding immigrants to the United States from what was once called “‘Greater Syria’” The researchers did not create an obvious geospatial map project, but rather embedded geospatial data within the stories they tell. 

The format of the project mimics a textbook.

The format mimics a digital textbook chapter, with a  section header followed by a non-sourced quote followed by tangentially relevant text and images, with a bibliography and data-providing institutions linked at the end.

The bottom banner links out to sources.

As a result of this experience, the use of ArcGIS StoryMaps as a medium software appears questionable. While census, birth, and death records forms the foundation of the  project, these geospatial data most often appear as statistics or photographs without visual-spatial contextualization. Historical maps are used, but they are dense and lack relevant edits or overlays for greater understanding.

Map of the United States with Lawrence, Massachusetts marked

The first map fails to label the U.S. industrial region and instead describes it using colloquial spatial designations. These designations lack relevance to many non-U.S. residents and are disagreed upon by U.S. residents. Meanwhile, the second map lacks any clarifying caption as to its purpose.

Map of Lawrence with no caption

Furthermore, the single interactive map provides census data with some shallow analysis of general historical trends overlayed in a scroll bar.

Interactive map developed in ArcGIS

Hence, while this project communicates the nuances of the Lebanese immigrant life, it arguable underused the capabilities of Story Maps. Without contextualization, the cited data loses meaning. Why, for instance, is there no mapped data to show the nuance of the gendered division of labor among families? 

This lack of mapped data and insistence on textual embedding raises another problem with the project, a lack of in-text citation. While a gratitude statement, bibliography, and links provide do eventually lead to the data, the direct connection between source and content remains unclear. In order to establish this connection, the interested must find the print version.

Thus, Legacies of Labor demonstrates that geospatial does not solely exist on a map while simultaneously leaving much to desire in terms of integrating geospatial visualizations to provide their story with greater spatial context. The storytelling is well done, and there is room to make it even better.