Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge

Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge (LAPUHK), described by its author as a “multimedia essay” was published in web form in 2000 to accompany the December 2000 issue of The American Historical Review.  The website, the outcome of a six-year project by Philip J Ethington, Professor of History and Political Science at the University of Southern California, is comprised of a combination of visual media accompanied by a rather dense essay on the problem of urban historical knowledge.  The most basic purpose of LAPUHK is to give readers an opportunity to explore LA both in overview and in close detail, through a variety of images, maps, and quantitative data visualised on animated maps and graphs.  Ethington describes his attempt to map, in both the literal and figurative sense, the vast metropolis of Los Angeles, and by extension to anticipate the move to a more productive stage of comparative urban scholarship.  The overriding objective of the project is to answer the question of how the historian can make sense of something as historically mutable as a vast metropolis.

The site is notable for the relative quaintness of its design and presentation. Visually, it is both unsophisticated and unappealing.  The home page is a black background, with the text and main image covering less than half of the screen.  It is laid out like the title page of a book, with the author’s name, the title of the publication, and publishing details all displayed at the top of the page, above a series of sequential photographs that one has to scroll down to see in its entirety.


There are other design issues which point to the site’s experimental genesis.  Clicking on the sequence of images on the home page doesn’t lead to a zoomed in version of the image, as one would now expect, but rather to the preface of the essay.  The white font against a back background is difficult to read and the underlining of hyperlinks is both inconsistent and more obtrusive than we are used to, 14 years later. But these criticisms serve no purpose given the age of the website, and so it is unnecessary to discuss them further.  What is, however, remarkable about the site is that despite its author’s avowal otherwise, it appears that the website functions primarily as a repository for his essay.  This essay, and indeed the website as a whole, are suffused with the language of the book.  The preface to the essay is linked to from the homepage and it is possible to download and print the entire textual contents of the site. This printed version is 29 pages long and begins with a table of contents that lists the various elements (or chapters) of the site.  In explaining how to read the website, Ethington suggests the analogy of the newspaper as a way of navigating the hypertextual structure of the site.  This direction to the reader is indicative of, firstly, the novelty of the medium, and, secondly, of what Hitchcock (2011) has called the “fascist authority” of the book format; he writes that, “In the last couple of decades, historians who are unduly fascinated by books have restricted themselves to asking only the kind of questions books can answer.”  LAPUHK represented an important step towards a new methodology, one which prepared the way for new questions and new ways of answering them.  Seefeldt and Thomas (2009 3) credit the project with establishing a different model of historical scholarship, “one that had an ambitious goal to both democratize the past and attempt alternative historical, theoretical and methodological approaches.”  The project exemplified some of the difficulties of performing urban history, in particular those presented by the obstacles of scale, complexity, historical erasure, and postmodern scepticism.  The success of the project therefore must not be judged on the achievements of the site but, rather, on the project’s situation within a new methodological impulse.

According to Cohen and Rosenzweig (2014), “doing digital history well entails being aware of the technology’s advantages and disadvantages and how to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.”  It is apparent from the layout of the site that Ethington was unaware of how to accomplish this.  The ergodic nature of the website form is not counterbalanced by an intuitive layout which would have reduced the effort required on the part of the reader.  The site is not easy to read but the application of manipulative technology to photographs of Los Angeles did achieve some interesting results.  Photos that have been manipulated to create the impression of a panoramic viewpoint provide a new perspective of the Los Angeles of past and present.  These photos represent one of the ways in which digital history projects are capable of changing historical knowledge production.


However, there are other issues with the site that highlight Ethington’s failure to anticipate how changes in technology would impact upon the project.  Indeed, it is evident that little, if any, provision was made to guarantee its longer-term sustainability.  But given the inchoate nature of the project’s form, Ethington can hardly be held responsible for this lack of foresight.  The essay, photographs, maps, and visualised data are still available but the file format of the videos is not supported by current browsers and so can no longer be viewed online.  Cohen and Rosenzweig (ibid) have warned that, “When you move your history online, you are entering a less structured and controlled environment than the history monograph.”  This warning brings me to my only criticism for which Ethington can be reasonably held responsible, and that is to do with the accuracy of the data he provides. The Tour of Global Cities page lists some of the world’s most populous cities, with a population figure and a “Y” or “N” to indicate whether or not they are a capital city.  In a footnote that is hyperlinked to, Ethington explains the difficulty in obtaining accurate population statistics.  In Ethington’s bibliographic essay, he explains that it is “written in the spirit of an introduction for the neophytes” (Ethington 2000), and I would question then whether this inconsistency and lack of visibility of the footnote explaining these population figures would have arisen if Ethington had published these statistics in traditional print form. Despite this, LAPUHK was remarkable because it represented a significant development in digital history and was an important stepping stone towards the necessary hybridity that Zaagsma (2013 47) refers to as “the new normal”.


  1. Cohen, Daniel J., and Rosenzweig, Roy.Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web. Web. https://www.library.cornell.edu/research/citation/mla Accessed 10 Oct. 2014
  2. Ethington, Philip, J. “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge”.   2000. http://www.usc.edu/dept/LAS/history/historylab/LAPUHK/index.html Accessed 6 Oct. 2014
  3. Hitchcock, Tim.“Academic History Writing and Its Disconnects.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1 (2011). Web. http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/academic-history-writing-and-its-disconnects-by-tim-hitchcock/ Accessed 10 Oct. 2014.
  4. Seefeldt, Douglas, and Thomas, William G. “What Is Digital History? A Look at Some Exemplar Projects”.University of Nebraska-Lincoln: 2009. Web. http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1097&context=historyfacpub Accessed 9 Oct. 2014.
  5. Zaagsma, Gerben.“On Digital History.” BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review 4 (2013): 3–29. Web. http://www.bmgn-lchr.nl/index.php/bmgn/article/view/9344 Accessed 12 Oct. 2014



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