The Scholars’ Lab GIS workshop sessions are designed to be accessible without prior knowledge or experience with GIS software and to give attendees hands-on experience with step-by-step instructions. Workshop topics are based on the how-to questions Kelly and Chris answer daily in their interactions with faculty and students in the Scholars’ Lab, in addition to emerging themes in geospatial scholarship.
As an aspiring social studies teacher, I recognize the importance of integrating digital history into the classroom. Students have grown up in the digital age, and, as such, consume a majority of their information online. Gone are the days of searching through a library for primary and secondary sources to support a historical argument or reading a newspaper to discover that day’s events. All this information, and more, can now be found online. This vast availability of information has greatly expanded the possibilities for studying history, which presents us, as educators, with a unique opportunity to integrate digital history into our classrooms. By doing so, we will enable students to utilize digital media to advance historical analysis and understanding. To do this, however, we must first provide students with models of digital history. What follows are several examples of digital history projects that could be used in classrooms (and beyond) to equip students with the skills required to contribute to our knowledge of world contexts in a digital way.
HistoryMatters is a digital history project that resulted from collaboration between George Mason University and the City University of New York. The project began in 1998 with the intent of providing teachers and students with digital resources that could improve their instruction and understanding of United States history. It was funded by the Kellogg Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. There are over a thousand primary sources on a variety of topics that range from photographs to text documents to audio files, all of which can be used with students to help them construct a narrative of the past. What’s unique about this project is that it takes full advantage of the digital space by using audio files from everyday Americans to help participants co-construct the history of the United States as well as from scholars on how to teach major aspects of US history. In addition, since there are over a thousand primary sources available, there is a “full search” feature that was developed to assist in locating resources by time, topic, or keyword. With the large number of primary sources available, this digital history project would be an excellent resource for students to use for research papers. Students could use this project to develop a research question based on an area of inquiry, examine primary sources related to their topic, arrive at conclusions based on their research, and publish their findings in order to advance our understanding of history. Doing so would expose them to conducting research digitally while also developing their ability to think critically, evaluate evidence, and articulate their thoughts clearly.
Mapping Inequality is a digital history project that was created through the collaboration of three research teams from the University of Maryland, the University of Richmond, Virginia Tech, and Johns Hopkins University. This project showcases 150 maps that were drafted by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) from 1935 to 1940. These maps were color-coded to show the credit-worthiness of different neighborhoods in each town. Mortgage lenders then used these maps to determine whether someone would qualify for a loan. This project was developed to show that, when these maps are compared to the layout of neighborhoods in the United States today, it becomes apparent that many of the racial and class inequities that exist are a direct result of the HOLC’s maps. In fact, many of these maps were produced such that they were to codify racial segregation into real estate practice. This project could be used with students for multiple purposes. For example, when teaching about the New Deal, students could use the site to determine how the HOLC reflected a problematic legacy of the New Deal. Students could also be asked to cite specific examples from the map of how the HOLC’s practices led to the racial and class segregation that is seen today. For example, if they examined the areas around Hartford, Connecticut, they would observe that the HOLC deemed that West Hartford had the “best,” most credit worthy neighborhoods, whereas Hartford had the “hazardous,” least credit worthy neighborhoods. If this map is compared to today’s, it becomes evident that the HOLC’s maps led to racial and class segregation, with West Hartford and Hartford reflecting mostly unchanged neighborhoods. In addition, showcasing a digital history project of this nature in class would familiarize students with what digital history can look like. Through this project, teachers could expose students to some of the digital tools and resources—such as mapping software and online databases—that would be required to design it. This would create incentives to work collaboratively with other scholars—especially those who could provide the digital resources for projects like this.
3) The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War
The Valley of the Shadow is a digital history project constructed by the Virginia Center for DigitalHistory at the University of Virginia. This project narrates the countless stories of two different communities from the American Civil War—one from the North and one from the South—through letters, newspapers, diaries, speeches, and other primary sources. The project is organized through a series of image maps that direct the viewer to various search engines. This project functions similarly to the HistoryMatters project—they are both databases of primary sources that employ search engines to enable the viewer to locate information—but there is a key difference between the two worth mentioning: while HistoryMatters contains a large amount of primary source information on a wide variety of topics across United States history, this project only provides information that is relevant to a specific time and topic. The narrow focus is relevant to the work historians do on a daily basis, as most of a history scholar’s research explores questions in a specific niche of the past. As such, teachers could use this project to show students how they might approach a digital history research project. This would help transition students away from the traditional way of communicating their thoughts on history through a research paper and, instead, provide them with the opportunity to disseminate their ideas digitally. For example, rather than writing a paper about the significant World War II battles, students could create an online timeline that lays out those events chronologically while also providing descriptions of the significance of each battle. Exposing students to and allowing them to engage in this sort of work would enable them to practice the craft of a historian in a very familiar context and equip them with the skills to pose their own questions about a certain niche of the world.
Matthew Ferraro is a masters’ student in the Neag School of Education’s Integrated Bachelors’ / Masters’ (I/BM) Program. He is currently interning at Conard High School, where his research interests include how to best integrate human rights education into social studies classrooms. He is studying to become a social studies teacher at the high school level. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For scholars in the humanities interested in making maps there is a wide range of available tools. At least half-a-dozen programs exist that allow a scholar to upload data, visualize it, analyze it, and then share it with colleagues and the public. These tools provide the enterprising scholar the ability to augment their arguments with exciting visual components or to reveal new questions or patterns that can provide strong evidence or push research in new directions.
In this blog post I will discuss some of the options available, focusing on how each tool matches with different kinds of projects and skill levels. While not an expert in GIS or mapping, I have been working on a mapping project on 17th-century New England that has plunged me into an overwhelming array of websites and software. I made the time-consuming mistake of experimenting with each new software I came across, but hopefully after reading this post others can avoid this quagmire and get to making exciting and fun maps.
Before continuing a little should be said about the different uses for maps (from my perspective as a history PhD candidate). Maps make a striking visual argument that can both stand on its own when crafted well or can complement a text or webpage. For example, while I can point out that dozens of towns in New England were destroyed during King Philip’s War, actually mapping this destruction with intensity bubbles across the region makes a powerful statement. As an analytical tool, maps allow scholars to repurpose heavily used sources in order to find new patterns or to compile relatively insignificant data from ignored sources into more useful aggregated forms. Continuing with examples I know, by plotting something as mundane as the dates of town settlement throughout New England, the chronology of English settlers breaking away from their coastal and riverine settlements becomes clear. Simply reading dates and locations would not have yielded this conclusion. Richard White has presented a particular strong argument for spatial history.
Before you actually start to use any mapping programs, you will need a few things, including something to map! You will also need to know your goal. There are three types of things you can do with mapping software: you can make cool visualizations or tell stories, you can plot and analyze vector data, or you can overlay historical maps on contemporary maps (and even plot your vector data on them or extract data from them). Vector data is usually stored in a spreadsheet, although most programs also allow you to add data points internally in a time consuming process. With your goal in mind, gather your vector data, an image of a historical map, or information/a story you want to visualize.
If you are using vector data, you probably already have a location associated with what you want to plot. If your location is expressed in lat/lon numbers you are ready. If it is a town name or street address, you will want to convert it to lat/lon coordinates unless you are using Google Maps or Carto (they can do it automatically). A simple google search will yield some websites that will convert your locational data, but they are somewhat clunky. A better method is to upload your spreadsheet into Google Sheets (Google’s version of excel) and to create a macro. While that may sound intimidating, it really only involves copy and pasting a line of code that can be found here.
For the digital neophyte looking to either visualize or begin an analytical project, the best place to start is Google Maps. While you may be familiar with using Google Maps to get directions or look at a street view of your house, it also has the ability to plot vector data, or become a complex map imbedded in a website. For the purposes of the only moderately technologically savvy, this is best done through “My Maps.” My Maps has built in georeferencing and is linked to Google Sheets, so it is easy to transfer vector data over with basic locational information and have it quickly plotted through a series of intuitive commands. Your data can be classified by Google Maps in a few basic ways including simple color coding. You can also upload customized images to act as icons for your data in addition to Google’s icon library. You are able to easily manipulate your data in the program, change how it is classified or displayed, and isolate specific ranges of data with a few simple clicks.
Using Carto will avoid several of these problems while requiring some additional technical skill. In general Carto is similar to Google Maps My Maps. It is good for plotting and visualizing vector data and you can modify uploaded spreadsheets within the webpage. While at times a little less user friendly, it is also enables you to use custom base-maps and to apply limited coding to change the style and interface of your maps. Like Google Maps, it is extremely easy to share on social media or embedded in your own webpage. Overlaying images, while possible, is still a difficult task in this program. Additionally, it only has a limited ability to create a fully customized interface.
Perhaps the strongest tools for analysis, although not visualization, are ArcGIS and QGIS. While very similar, QGIS is open source and free, but ArcGIS is proprietary and very expensive for those without access through their institution. These programs provide powerful sandboxes for mapping and uploading data, but are relatively difficult to use. When you open these programs, you are presented with a blank canvas.
It is up to you to upload base maps and data, or plot data in the program. Because you have a blank canvas, anything you upload needs to be georeferenced. If you are uploading a spreadsheet this means lat/long geographical coordinates, although some formats can be georeferenced within the program. The spreadsheet to be uploaded needs to first be converted into a .csv format, which can be done from excel or Google Sheets using “save as.”
Additionally, all layers of data need to have a consistent CRS (Coordinate Reference System) value applied to them.
Once uploaded, you can add to your data, categorize it in several ways, and style it with great freedom. Historical maps and images can easily be uploaded to your project and stretched and overlaid wherever and however you want. These programs are not ideal for creating visually polished maps for internet distribution (frequently people augment them with photoshop or illustrator for this purpose). Despite stylistic limitations, the Arc/QGIS alone are fine for making the mind of maps that can be included in printed publications. QGIS, which I have more experience with, also allows you to make maps into a format that you can integrate into a webpage through one of its many useful plugins. If you are interested in learning how to actually use GIS, the Programming Historian has a few useful tutorials.
Once installed Neatline has several plugins of its own that allow you to add timelines to your map, create an interactive text in which words are linked to points on the map, and for you to upload images to overlay on the map, or even a custom background. These demos really show its power. Its greatest strength is its friendly interface and plentiful documentation. Oddly enough, some of its issues emerge when doing things that one would imagine would be relatively simple for it, like trying to batch transfer items with lat/lon associated from an Omeka database (luckily there is a helpful internet community for both Neatline and Omeka).
Hopefully, this post has given those of you interested in mapping a guide on where you might want to start your project. Personally, I find myself using a combination of Google Maps, QGIS, and Neatline for different aspects of my project, with the intention of eventually taking advantage of the Google Maps API and Leaflet to bring my project online. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions.
Nathan Braccio is a Ph.D candidate in the UCONN History Department. He received his B.A. and M.A. in history from American University. His research focuses on the conflux of geography and identity in 17th and 18th century New England. More information on mapping and his research can be found on his webpage nathanbraccio.com. Contact him at email@example.com.