Visualizing the Past: Mapping, GIS, and Teaching Historical Consciousness

By Sasha Mullally and Siobhan Hanratty

In defining the new field of spatial history, Richard White makes the case that mapping can be more than a corollary to a historical narrative, it “is a means of doing research; it generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.” Over the winter and spring of 2014, we taught a digital history course to honours and graduate history students at the University of New Brunswick that built upon these ideas. Designed from a theoretical perspective, the course traced the evolving relationship between digital history, mapping and map-making. In so doing, the course asked students to reconsider their own research in light of the “spatial turn,” and explore/evaluate the tools of historical geographic information systems (H-GIS).

For several years, the history department at UNB offered Understanding the Digital Past: Making Digital History, a course organized as a theoretical survey, but focused on supporting Atlantic Canada Studies at UNB, specifically the well-used Atlantic Canada Virtual Archives (ACVA). Digital History instruction provided students with an opportunity to work with the ACVA team, and to learn the basics of digital collections building. While the original goals for the course proved unsustainable (due to staff turnover, and shifting technologies and priorities for digital scholarship), the potential for digital history remained, as did enthusiasm for the field. The course shifted in orientation, and became more about the potentials of digitally-enhanced and technology-enabled forms of scholarship.

By 2015, as co-author of a book project on physician immigration to mid century Canada, I [Sasha] had begun exploring the possibilities of GIS. The medical diasporas project introduced me to the applicability of GIS software (such as ArcGIS and Quantum GIS) for mapping the distribution of doctors (by country of origin, specialty, and other identifiers) across the Canadian landscape. Historical GIS was starting to have a lot of personal relevance, and I immediately saw how it might very easily inform and enrich honours and graduate training.

Mapping a location, as Stephen Robertson has argued, entails “a confrontation with specific detail” of a place. “It requires that historians abandon ideas of neighbourhoods or communities as monoliths, and think more precisely about fluid boundaries, overlapping zones, and internal divisions.” This was perfect for my post-colonial project on the globalization of health human resources in Canada. Similarly, I thought, H-GIS could, by extension, confront students with the boundaries, zones and divisions within their own projects. Furthermore, it could prompt critical thinking about some key changes occurring within the discipline of history, including some of the more recent work on H-GIS in Canada, such as Bonnell and Fortin’s recent collection on Historical GIS Research in Canada.

Fortunately, H-GIS was particularly well supported at the UNB library. GIS librarian, my colleague and co-author Siobhan Hanratty, provided invaluable support as I worked through student projects and assisted with fostering their “GIS-enabled historical consciousness.” Broadly defined, GIS refers to any digital project that correlates geographic data with other types of information. In her 2007 collection, Placing History, Anne Knowles has identified four characteristics of H-GIS, which provided a foundation for student work:

  1. Geographical questions drive a significant part of the historical inquiry.
  2. Geographical information provides a good share of the historical evidence.
  3. The bulk of evidence, or the evidence that provides the study’s key analytical framework, is structured and analyzed within one or more databases that record both location and time.
  4. Historical arguments are presented in maps as well as in text, graphs, tables, and pictorial images; maps serve in particular to show patterns of change over time.

And so we challenged students to see what happened when they “spatialized” elements of their thesis projects.

When we started working with these students we were aware that only a few of them likely had any experience searching for geospatial data, and that few would have had prior opportunity to work with GIS software. As such, our initial goal was straightforward: we wanted to intrigue as many of them as we could, and challenge them to think about what they might create and learn if by engaging with this technology.

When students began arriving at the library with their projects, Siobhan faced three main challenges. She had to focus on teaching students to: 1. Find numeric and/or spatial data that could act as a backdrop for their projects, 2. Format their collected data in ways that could work with H-GIS research processes, and 3. Choose a GIS program or platform that would best serve their needs. Of the three, finding suitable geospatial and socio-demographic (numeric) data was the most straightforward. Some students wanted only boundary files or base maps because they had point data that they wanted to map. One student who was doing a history of policing wanted to use a log of Fredericton police calls for service, captured over 1962-64, to map the “beat” of patrolling officers doing their rounds. Using a base map that reflected the look of the era, he was able to plot the points using ArcGIS online. With street view photos form the 1960s, he was able to add a look and feel that depicted the policing experience.

This was a success, but some other students wanted to join their information to census or other administrative data. One student wanted to visualize Canadian Forces recruiting data and census data in an attempt to link the former to religious affiliation. Initially he wanted to map by municipality, but soon found that representing religious affiliation “intensity” by county yielded more meaningful results. He used ArcGIS Desktop because it allowed for larger shapefiles and better symbology [representing data/informaiton by colour, or icon choice, etc.].

We were challenged by which GIS software package or platform to use? UNB has a tradition cultivated over several decades of offering strong GIS focussed programs, mostly through the Faculty of Geodesy and Geomatics Engineering and the Faculty of Forestry; therefore, we have a site licence for ESRI products, the maker of ArcGIS, an industry standard. Those students who wanted to display point data found ArcGIS Online – rather than the desktop version – was sufficient. It provided an easy solution to the georeferencing aspect of their projects and it was easy to create a dynamic map that could be embedded on a webpage.

Not all students opted for ESRI products, however. One very successful project that mapped the American navy’s formation of atolls in the Pacific theatre of war during the 1940s did a nice job using Google Earth. But, for the students who wanted more options for working with census data and shapefiles (different kinds of maps for the same jurisdiction), then ArcGIS Desktop was by far the more powerful tool.

For those students who wanted to join their data to existing numeric and geospatial files, some were required to make research decisions as to “best fit.” Usually the decisions were easy, but not always. A student who had a lot of data on war memorials in New Brunswick, for example, initially wanted to symbolize them by conflict and type, while also visualizing language and religious affiliation. This was too complex for our purpose. In the end, he opted to omit religious affiliation, and although he created a thematic map depicting concentration of language spoken by municipality, he knew he would be unable to create a more sophisticated analysis of commemorative semantics. A spatial analysis of this level exceeded our class time and technical capacity, although thinking about what their project maps would ideally communicate, and disseminate their research had value in and of itself.

Navigating the aspirations of the students’ projects alongside the real limitations of the software and data, the task of preparing collected data for use in GIS proved the most difficult, or at least time consuming, task. Not having had any mapping experience, none of the students were aware that in order to visualize their tabular data, they might have to format it in a specific fashion, (for instance, add an explicit geographic component to their data, and/or standardize their entries for effective symbolization. Everyone had to reformat their data at some point (for instance, they had to be more consistent than they first realized about how they took notes, using Saint or St. in referring to place names). Everyone learned the value of standardizing metadata and documenting their process. However, in their end of term papers, this was reflected in very careful use of language, descriptions, and the creation of more considered narrative. Improved literacy in H-GIS also advanced literacy in their essays, the more traditional ways of communicating scholarly work.

Their approach to methodology improved across the board as student were continually required to ask themselves why they made each coding decision. One project proposed to “map” the Historica Heritage Minutes by setting, and link this to production date, periodization of content, and topic/theme. This student needed to decide on the geographic location when the “setting” was not fixed. Does Ottawa represent Canada always, and when something is located in a large city, do you choose “city hall” as the geographic marker? In other words, what geographical identity best suits in cases where the setting is fluid? Choosing administrative units imposes a political-geographic framework of analysis. This is certainly a legitimate choice, but it is nonetheless value laden. In unexpected ways, H-GIS forces students to consider the intersections of place and identity. Further, they realized an economy of H-GIS communication: with traditional, narrative historical scholarship, decisions could be explained and mediated by text. Here, they learned how, in GIS research, such decisions are especially freighted, as the mapping must convey with little or no text all the findings by itself.

In all cases, H-GIS revealed deeper or unexpected things about their thesis projects, which were published online using templates (like Wix or WordPress) and reflected upon in theoretical papers that situated their efforts in H-GIS scholarship. The topics were wide-ranging: the placement of Canadian communities’ World War One memorials, the distribution of recruits to the Canadian military from different counties of Atlantic Canada, the regional and global distribution of Heritage Minutes subject matter over the last several decades, the travels of a Canadian soldier based on his war diaries, and the creation of US Naval bases in the Pacific during the Second World War. They turned to Siobhan to manifest their visions.

Conclusions and Forecasts

Overall, students found that thinking of history in spatial terms offered a perspective that challenges the longstanding logocentrism of the historical profession. The process of mapping their projects focussed their attention on methodology, and underscored the importance of carefully considering metadata language used to code data. This, unexpectedly, taught them to better appreciate the language used in the creation of historical narratives.

There are noteworthy innovations since we last offered our Digital History course. Now that ArcGIS Online has developed Story Maps (where it is easier to plot out a chronology) we would expect our history students would be interested in mapping events using a time component. Improvements in how H-GIS incorporates text and narrative also signal that the ESRI programmers are acknowledging interdisciplinary uses for their software. Going forward, we would also expect to see more students using this function, to which we will add choices for different kinds of open source software.

What we will keep is the collaboration. Frequently, and certainly in the case of digital history at UNB, spatial history and GIS demand collaboration between historians and other kinds of scholars, like GIS librarians and other digital technicians and academics (such as geographers). Collaborative teaching is new in history, but this is quickly changing. And our experience at UNB shows how valuable these partnerships can be for our own students’ learning. For us, the future course of digital history at UNB is mapped out very clearly.

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