Monday, September 04, 2006

Nature's Metropolis and Its Hinterland

Fifteen years ago William Cronon published Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, a book that has become something of a classic in environmental history and many other fields. In the book, Cronon shows how the history of nineteenth-century Chicago wasn't merely the history of a city, but rather the history of the relations between a city and the hinterland that it dominated. This was a fairly novel perspective since the history of the American West has often been viewed in terms of a frontier. (Nature's Metropolis seems less revolutionary from the perspective of Canadian historiography, which already had a metropolitan-hinterland thesis, but it's a great book nonetheless.)

Thinking idly about the historiographical significance of Cronon's book, I got to wondering what kind of hinterland it dominates. That is to say, where do we find publically accessible copies of Nature's Metropolis? Fortunately, the new Open WorldCat makes it quite easy for a digital history hacker to answer a question like this. First we search for the locations of libraries where the book is held and scrape the addresses. Then we use a lookup table to map the zip codes to latitude/longitude pairs. Finally, we hand the whole thing off to Google Maps to plot the results, shown below.

From the maps, it looks as if the hinterland that Nature's Metropolis dominates is the northeastern US.

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