Anne Knowles’ fascination with maps began during her childhood.
She and her siblings eagerly gathered around the family’s dining room table in Kalamazoo, Michigan as their father read aloud passages from American Heritage books.
“I was often the last one (left) at the table,” says Knowles, who was enthralled by the beautifully written volumes packed with photographs and maps.
During summers, the family piled into the station wagon for highly organized trips to beautiful lands and historical sites, including Gettysburg, the Black Hills and Boston.
Exploring places she had heard about, read about and examined on maps was powerful, and gave history context and a sense of place.
At Duke University, Knowles majored in English, worked at the student newspaper, started Tobacco Row magazine and took up modern dance.
After graduation, she continued to dance and edited books for publishing companies in New York, then Chicago. For her first developmental editing job, Michael Conzen designed 110 full-color maps to distinguish America’s History from other U.S. history textbooks.
Knowles says her nine-month crash course in cartography with the enthusiastic historical geographer and gifted pen-and-ink mapmaker was a transformative experience.
“Seeing history through maps made it real, it grounded me. I didn’t know there was such a thing as historical geography.”
Then it became her calling.
Knowles earned her master’s and doctorate in geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, then taught — mainly in Welsh — at the Institute of Earth Studies at Aberystwyth University in Wales.
“All that she has achieved, and all the kudos she has accrued, has come from her immense energy, her ability to focus and organize effort, and her zest for communicating the results of her research to all within reach.” Michael Conzen
She returned to the U.S. for a postdoctoral fellowship at Wellesley College. But after three years, her geography position, like many others up and down the East Coast, wasn’t funded.
Knowles felt desperate and angry, but says the experience showed her life was possible without an academic job. For two years in Washington, D.C., she focused on the potential of using GIS in historical research and teaching.
She edited Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History, which used GIS to analyze past events, including the Salem witch trials and the Dust Bowl. As it turned out, reimagining history refocused her academic career.
Several weeks after 9/11, Knowles left a church service with renewed passion and purpose to again pursue teaching. She soon was offered a post in the Geography Department at Middlebury College, where she worked for 13 years.
Conzen, Knowles’ mentor, calls her a remarkable scholar and force.
“Anne’s ambition from early on in her new career was to make an impact in double-quick time, to make up, as it were, for her late entry into the discipline,” says Conzen, now professor and chair of Geographical Studies at the University of Chicago.
“Boy, has she done that. All that she has achieved, and all the kudos she has accrued, has come from her immense energy, her ability to focus and organize effort, and her zest for communicating the results of her research to all within reach.”
In 2012, Smithsonian magazine heralded Knowles’ innovation, presenting her with a Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award for historical scholarship for pioneering “the combined use of mapmaking and databases in historical research.”
She’s in good company; others honored for revolutionary breakthroughs in the arts, sciences, education and social progress include musician Esperanza Spalding, inventor Elon Musk and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Knowles, who is married to Stephen Hornsby, director of UMaine’s Canadian-American Center and professor of geography and Canadian studies, relocated to Maine in 2015.
“The History Department was really lucky to be able to hire Anne,” says Stephen Miller, department chair and the Adelaide C. Bird and Alan L. Bird Professor in History.
“She is a terrific colleague, a dedicated teacher and a leading scholar. She brought with her a wealth of experience in digital humanities, and we are hopeful that the University of Maine can become a vibrant center of digital and spatial history.”
Knowles says she’s found her home in Orono.
“My goal as a professor is to inspire students to exceed their limits, to try new things, take risks, (and) admit what they do not know to clear the way to learn more.”
Justus Hillebrand says that Knowles, his adviser, meets that goal and more.
The doctoral history student says that when Knowles welcomed him to work with the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, she told him the researchers leave their egos at the door and focus on the project at hand.
“That was the most surprising, refreshing and truly helpful sentiment I have experienced in academia,” says Hillebrand, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s at the University of Cologne, Germany.
Paul Jaskot, a collaborative colleague and professor of art, art history and visual studies at Duke, calls Knowles an insightful educator.
“You know that feeling of the floor shifting under your feet, rising up in front of you?” asks Jaskot. “She is a born teacher in every sense. She listens, she synthesizes and creates.”