HIS 317 Mapping History

The last ten years have witnessed a sea change in the use of geographic information technologies. While spatial analysis has long occupied a privileged place in the natural and social sciences, GIS is expanding its influence in the humanities, in business, and as a public platform for data visualization. This is partly because spatial thinking resonates in any number of disciplines or interests, but also because GIS tools have become simultaneously more democratic, userfriendly, and powerful. In HIS 395, “Mapping History: Cartography from the Early Modern to the Digital Age,” students employ a suite of these free, open source tools to investigate the spatial dimensions of environmental history and develop mapping products that answer an historical question.

The course is two-tiered. On Mondays, students explore the history of cartography from the perspective of the human relationship with the environment. Key themes have included the thematic mapping of Alexander von Humboldt during his South American journeys, census data and choropleth mapping in the context of rural development in the American Midwest, and epidemiological mapping of epidemics in nineteenth century London. Students submit weekly blog responses about these themes that critically analyze and compare two maps (sometimes historical images, sometimes interactive maps) in the context of weekly readings found on the course blog and digital syllabus. This portion of the course is significant because it encourages students to think expansively about primary sources.  A map, they learn, is as expressive a source as any text. Maps make arguments that can be interpreted as much from their data and stylistic presentation, as their historical context.

On Wednesdays, students explore these same themes using open source source mapping tools. Much of the first half of the course is dedicated to the basic usage of QGIS, a desktop application and open source alternative to ESRI’s ArcGIS. For instance, during a week spent investigating the urban development of Pittsburgh, students mapped the proximity of iron mines to railroads leading to the steel city. This was not only a valuable lesson about the interdependency of cities and their hinterlands in history, but it was an opportunity to learn new GIS skills like overlay and buffer analysis. Students post these practicum exercises to the blog with short reflections. In the case of this Pittsburgh exercise, they considered how new historical questions might be addressed with digital data. Several students, for instance, felt the exercise would be more robust with river and coal mining data. This was an example of students going beyond the fundamentals of QGIS as a tool, they were thinking about the spatial dimensions of historical problem solving.

Beyond QGIS, students in this course also explore a range of other free, open source mapping options. Web-based GIS are becoming increasingly robust, and though not equivalent to desktop applications, they are generally more intuitive, visually dynamic, and shareable on the web. Now two months into this first iteration of the course, students are increasingly familiar with many of the basic functions of QGIS including spatial analysis, and we will be transitioning to exercises employing these web-based GIS applications. Students have already used Gigapixel.js (a web-based image zooming tool) to construct “deep maps” of locations of their choice.  This exercise challenged the students to think broadly about the “mapping impulse,” what constitutes a map as opposed to an image or text, and how we decide what to include or remove from our maps. Later lessons will teach students how to merge data from their desktops or from online databases with web GIS platforms for analysis and visualization including ArcGIS Online’s storymaps, Carto’s animated “torque” maps, mobile mapping apps, and Google Earth. The beauty of these open source tools is the diversity of options, which increase in number yearly. This will ensure that future versions of this course will remain innovative and responsive to the changing landscape of mapping. This “suite” approach to digital spatial tools (rather than focusing on one) will expose students to this diversity, and they will employ at least one of these tools in their final project. Students have been remarkably engaged and insightful, both in their weekly contributions to discussions/the blog as well as the initial stages of their final project. This project will be a mapping product, due by the end of the semester, that poses and attempts to answer an historical question using tools introduced during the course and building on lessons from our discussions. Students have proposed projects as varied as mapping waterfront development of Washington D.C., to changing uses of recreational space in San Diego tourist maps, to population change as a result of the London Underground. As the capstone product of this class, students are preparing their maps in stages and have already completed a project proposal that establishes the historical question they will be addressing and lays out possible data sources. Future stages will include a more detailed “annotated bibliography” of data and historical sources, a presentation of the map to the class, and class critiques of the maps (using analysis techniques honed during prior weeks of map discussions).

While this course focuses on history (specifically environmental history), at its core, “Mapping History” is a vehicle to introduce students to the importance of spatial thinking. Spatiality transcends any single discipline and open source spatial tools likewise open themselves up to any interest with “mappable” data. Considering the rapidly expanding influence of GIS, the chief limitation for implementation is classrooms is likely training. QGIS and most desktop GIS options
are relatively time intensive to learn, but web apps are not. Much of their core functionality (including spatial analysis) is now available in web form (especially in the paid versions of ArcGIS Online) and training materials are public and conducive to any degree of prior experience with GIS. “Mapping History” is an example of the potential some of these tools have in the classrooms at Creighton.