Maps are incredibly useful tools for historians and the advent of digital mapping and the wide range of versatile software such as ArcGIS and new formats of maps made possible through the use of computers has created a new demand for a long tradition of historic mapping.
The usage of Geographic Information Systems, or GIS, is fairly common in the modern environment. This is especially true around a major political election, as more data becomes available more detailed election maps by county, and by neighborhood are possible. It’s also possible to create visual comparisons between results of different election years to track the changes in voting habits of an area over time and these types of maps always catch people’s attention. This is one of the most visible uses of digital mapping and possibly one of the most recognizable examples to use when explaining what GIS is to someone who may have never heard the term. This example also demonstrates one of the dangers of digital mapping and that is that it’s really quite easy to use maps to lie or misconstrue data, there’s a whole book on the topic by Mark Monmonier. So it is important to always consider the techniques, creators’ goals, data used, and a few other factors when looking at digital maps.
There is quite a bit of work done with historic maps using GIS software. Historians are also using digital mapping techniques to create maps that answer historic questions. It’s possible to use GIS software to create intractable maps from digitized copies of historic maps. Maps made by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company are a pretty good example of maps that are used often by historians that are being digitized and now georeferenced in ArcGIS and other such software as seen in this story map outlining the 1906 San Fransico fire.
ESRI, the company that develops ArcGIS which is considered the standard for GIS software has a website for story maps, and there’s a section for digital humanities projects. Many of these types of maps track movement, like this interesting one showing pirate routes through the Caribbean. These maps are great educational tools for use in the classroom, as many state and federal education standards involve being able to read and understand maps in different ways. For example, WA state social studies standard for the fourth grade G1.4.1: Construct and use maps to explain the movement of peoples, would be one that would benefit from the use of story maps that show movement. It’s a demonstration of what the students should learn and be able to do by the end of the year, albeit at a higher level than a teacher likely wants to assign for that age.
There’s a number of interesting projects on the ESRI website, under the arts and culture section I found this project, mapping mine tunnels and this one is a great example of a different type of digital mapping than what most people likely imagine when they hear the word “map.” There’s a number of different ways to utilize digital mapping to answer historic questions, and sometimes it’s more about using maps to show data. A project done by Dr. Sean Fraga who studies the history of the American Northwest utilized GIS to help visualize the data he found in a nineteenth-century customs ledger. The project shows different trade ports connected to the pacific northwest and how often ships either originated from there or had the port as their destination, and the changes of these numbers over several years can be seen by shifts in the size of symbols on the ports. It’s rather fascinating to watch the animated versions of the map change. The project also made the datasets publicly available so other people interested in the research could create separate maps with a bit of work.
A GIS professor at Eastern Washington University used to show his undergraduate classes a map that showed what was visible from atop the church at the Battle of Gettysburg and explained that during the battle Robert E Lee supposedly stood atop that building and watched his troop’s final push. For decades historians wondered why Lee would do nothing from that vantage point if he could see that his forces were about to march right into a terrible situation. Dr. Anne Kelly Knowles who studies the use of historical GIS created the map that was being shown to students and it showed that Lee couldn’t actually see what was happening.
Digital mapping is invaluable for its ability to capture public interest, and allowing for new forms of research and presentation. It’s a skill set that takes time to develop, and while there are caveats that I didn’t really discuss like accessibility issues food lower class schools, the usage of colors potentially being an issue for colorblind map readers, and the cost of some of the software, it is still something that anyone interested in the digital humanities should be aware of.