Historical Maps on the Internet

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Old maps are useful sources for just about anyone interested in history. Maps easily convey change over time, as they show the expansion of  cities, regions, or countries. They also provide useful context to help understand where historical events took place. Thankfully, historical maps are increasingly accessible online for those of you unable to spend days in the map library at the British Library or another comparable repository.

A growing number of professional historians are using Geographic Information Software (GIS) to study historical maps and their relationships with other geographic data from the past.   David Rumsey’s map collection and Google Earth allow non-experts much of the same functionality of the complex and expensive GIS software and make it possible for all historians to examine maps that have been “pinned” on the the satellite imagery in Google Earth.  This allows direct comparisons between the old maps and the modern landscapes.

The David Rumsey’s historical map collection provides an amazing collection of historical maps and globes. A large number of these maps are Geo-referenced or “pinned” onto the digital globe provided by  Google Earth. Rumsey Historical Maps are included in Gallery of Google Earth. Open the Gallery (found in the the menu on the bottom left hand side of Google Earth) and click on Rumsey Historical Maps to add them as a layer on the digital globe. Once you have done this a few hundred compasses will appear in Google Earth (zoom in and out and navigate around the world to see them all). Find a map that interests you, such as Pownall’s 1786 map of North America and double click on the compass. A box will appear with the map. Double click on the map and it will appear as a layer in Google Earth over top of the satellite image of North America. Once the map has been overlayed you can navigate around and zoom in and out in the same way you do with the normal Google Earth maps.  The collection of maps is extensive and growing. The focus of the collection is the USA, but there are still lots of maps of other countries and cities around the world. The Canadian content includes a number of North American maps, two maps of Montreal, two maps of Quebec City and one of Lower Canada in 1815. Continue reading

Live Blogging History: Accessible and Creative

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By Adam Crymble

As I’m writing, there are only a few hours left in 2009. Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec. This year, again an important Quebec anniversary came and went, but most English speaking Canadians probably didn’t even notice: the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham during which General Wolfe wrested New France from his adversary, Marquis de Montcalm.

If you grew up in the Canadian education system, you almost certainly studied this battle. And, if your experience was anything like mine, you were told that on September 12, 1759, the brilliant strategist, Wolfe, sailed his ships back and forth in front of the city of Quebec, tiring out the French soldiers who had to march to and fro to keep their eyes on the British. Then, when the French were all tuckered out, Wolfe landed his ships, rushed up the bank to the Plains of Abraham and defeated a French army, claiming New France for Britain. Oh, and while he was at it, he was mortally wounded, but was kind enough to pose for this famous painting by Benjamin West:

I had always assumed the whole thing took about 8 minutes.

Imagine my surprise this past summer when stumbled across Canadian author and historian Christopher Moore “live-blogging” the siege of Quebec, which started almost eighty days before the famous battle. During the siege, the British artillery decimated the city of Quebec and terrorized its citizens, many of whom died as a result of the constant bombardment. Continue reading

“Web Tools Aim to Open the Gates to the Ivory Tower”: Globe and Mail.

An article in January 2nd’s Globe and Mail discussed various web tools that universities are using to ‘open the gates of the ivory tower.’ In her article, Elizabeth Church discussed a new search engine launched by Memorial University named Yaffle, which allows community members to search and uncover various Memorial research projects, opportunities for involvement, and learn who is working on what. Another project, by York University, summarizes various research projects into plain english (helped by a poet who holds a Research Assistantship) and places them on the website. The byline of the Knowledge Mobilization site: Turning Research into Action.

Both projects are in their infancy, but they are promising steps towards making research accessible. At York, there is only one summary available under the subject heading of history – Marc Egnal’s recent work on the economic causes of the civil war – but it is a fascinating example.

If you have a chance, please check out the linked Globe & Mail article and play around with the two sites. What are your thoughts, if any?

All the best in the New Year! Hopefully it will be an ‘active’ one.

The Reason for the Season?

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A flurry of criticism was directed at MP Scott Brison of Kings-Hants after he sent Christmas cards to his constituents featuring a photo of his family.  Criticism stemed not from the fact that Canadian MPs are sending out Christmas cards in such a culturally diverse country.  Instead, Brison has come under attack by a vocal group who judge his sexuality.  It has been suggested that Brison’s cards were particularly inappropriate given that the cards were sent to mark a “Christian festival.”

The history of Christmas, however, shows that its roots in Christianity have always been tenuous; the holiday as it is celebrated in modern times is a product of an ever-deepening chasm between Christianity and Christmas.  As Christianity has never solely defined seasonal celebrations, it is more appropriately marked by sending holiday, rather than Christmas, greetings.

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Broadening participation in the Academic Conference

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History is more than a university-based field of study.  A quick glimpse at the current best-sellers in Canadian history on amazon.ca demonstrates that most Canadians are reading history written by non-academic historians; journalists, professional writers and public servants top the list.  History produced in universities competes, but also often compliments, that produced for tracing family roots, building community, influencing public policy, or entertaining a reader.  The different uses for, and perspectives within, the field of history can create a mine-field of interpretations and understandings of the past.  Bringing these diverse perspectives together helps to foster a richer understanding and broaden public engagement with the past.

In her paper at the Canadian Historical Association’s annual meeting in Vancouver, Margaret Conrad addressed the tensions that often arise over how different groups interpret the past.  Using the controversy over the Canadian War Museum’s depiction of the World War II allied bombing of Germany, Conrad suggests that processes need to be created where all of the stakeholders in a historical project can debate controversial historical ideas with the aim of mutual resolution.

Although Conrad’s paper is focused on historical controversies that occur in public spaces, her suggestion of bringing diverse perspectives together in genuine dialogue points one way toward a more rigorous discussion of Canada’s past by helping to create partnerships between historians, the communities that they study, and the general public.
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“Copenhagen is PM’s big chance”, History PhD Candidates Argue

Jeremy Marks and Ryan O’Connor, two PhD candidates in history at the University of Western Ontario, recently published an op-ed piece in the London Free Press in which they argue that positive action by Stephen Harper at Copenhagen would improve the political fortunes of his Conservative party.

The piece is available on Ryan’s blog, The Great Green North, which focuses on the history of the environmental movement in Canada.  Ryan’s dissertation, “Toronto the Green: The Emergence of the Canadian Environmental Movement”, examines the rise of green politics in Toronto during the 1960s and 1970s.  He is a member of NiCHE’s Popular Publishing Writer’s Guild.

Jeremy’s dissertation looks at the historical relationship between political and philosophical conservatism in Canada.

Jeremy and Ryan attended a graduate student workshop, “Publishing for a Wide Audience”, held at UWO in October.  Their op-ed is another example of historians engaging in the public policy dimensions of climate change.

Copenhagen, Climate Change, and History

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Politicians from around the world are meeting this week in Copenhagen for the UN Climate Change Conference, in order to discuss global warming and propose policies to combat this social and environmental concern.  Because global warming revolves around the concept of change over time, it is a subject to which historians can make a valuable contribution.

There are at least two mutually-inclusive avenues through which historians study climate change.  Whereas some scholars attempt to measure shifts in temperature throughout space and time by critically analyzing historical evidence, others present histories of global warming as a socio-scientific construct and topic of public policy.

A number of historians – within and outside Canada – have made their work accessible to a wide audience through the internet and other forms of accessible media.  These scholars understand the need to place climate change within a historical perspective, and the importance of making this work widely available.
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The Role of Historical Monographs

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At a recent workshop in London, I had a conversation with a fellow graduate student about the relevance of history as an academic discipline. He held that the entire academic world was a farce: professors spent too little time in the classroom, producing books that nobody read, were overpaid, and basically a general waste. Beyond my initial confusion that a fellow history graduate student would have such low esteem of his profession and peers, I think its a trenchant criticism that needs to be dealt with. This echoed the recent discussion begun by Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail about lazy professors, and rebutted by Clifford Orwin.

The teaching debate was played out between Wente and Orwin, and I think its an important one. But another important issue is the role of historical monographs.

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Bill Moyer uses Lyndon Johnson’s phone tapes to explore the escalation of American forces in Vietnam.

Bill Moyer, a PBS journalist and former aid in Lyndon Johnson’s White House, uses LBJ’s recorded phone calls to explore the history of the escalation of American forces in Vietnam. It is really interesting to hear LBJ struggle with a difficult situation and it is very timely as Barack Obama weighs his options in Afghanistan. This is also an amazing use of multimedia sources to explore history and a model for historians to consider as we research a past with a multitude of audio, video and photographic records.

Video: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11202009/watch.html
Audio Podcast: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/rss/media/BMJ-1331.mp3
Time-line with audio clips: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/11202009/profile.html