Digital Historic Mapping: Gaining A Deeper Understanding Of History With Maps

If you are like me, you like a good visual to help you understand historical events more clearly. Having a map to show where certain events took place helps you get a better grasp of the subject. Gaining an understanding of say, the Battle of Gettysburg, would be much more difficult without a map to show where the skirmishes took place. Maps help us gain a better understanding of history. But oh, dear reader, you would not BELIEVE the resources that are out there when it comes to historical maps. It is mind blowing to understand just how many internet sites now contain historical maps. Accessing them couldn’t be easier, as so many have now been digitized. Historical maps are now just a click away. Consider the New York Public Library. It has a digital map gallery that contains a list of nearly 50 sites. And each site contains dozens, if not hundreds of maps that have been digitized. There are sites that include maps of 16th through early 20th century Africa, and sites with maps of historic cities. Some have maps of Asia, others include maps of Europe. The topics are numerous and varied. And these are just a small sample of those included in the New York Library’s Digital Map Galleries. Click on the link below to access these different sites.

Now that maps, even very old maps, have entered the digital age, there are more opportunities to engage interactively with maps than ever before. The following is a great example. It is a 2013 map of the world. Included is a “spyglass” that you can move over the map, which shows what that area looked like on an 1812 map.

Click on the link below to use this interactive map:

Having digital access to historical maps is fantastic, however there are other new and exciting ways in which digital historians are using maps to help us understand historical events, and some of these methods will blow your socks off. ArcGIS story maps are beyond impressive. They combine storytelling centered around map usage to tell a story in a much deeper way. Jennifer Bell, who works for ESRI, a global geographic information system company who specializes in story maps, stated:

“Story maps can play a powerful role in raising awareness, increasing understanding, inspiring people to action, and ultimately telling the story of our Earth.” 

Following is a video in which Jennifer explains some of what you can do with Arc GIS story maps.

The following story maps are good examples of the quality and in depth learning that you can gain from these types of maps. They not only explain a historical event, they do so in a much richer and deeper way. These story maps bring the history alive. Check them out. I think you will agree!

An Infamous Day

As dawn broke on December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor—an event that claimed more than 2,400 lives and drew the United States into the most destructive war in modern history.

Click the link below to view this story map.

Footsteps to Freedom

Underground Railroad Study Tour

Click on the link below to view this story map.

Grace and Delight

The evolution of public spaces in four American cities

Click on link below to view this story map.

There are yet other exciting ways in which historians are using digital technology and mapping to help us better understand history. Consider the research being done by Sean Fraga. Sean has scoured the maritime historical ledgers and customs records of Puget Sound from 1851 to 1861. He has taken this information and plotted certain specifics regarding shipping in the area to make a map from which we can glean important historical information. In Fraga’s article Digitally Mapping Commercial Currents: Maritime Mobility, Vessel Technology, and U.S. Colonization of Puget Sound, 1851-1861, Fraga describes his research work this way:

“I use digital mapping and data visualization to reveal aggregate trends and interpret the ledger data.”  

Sean has taken specific information about ships that entered and exited the area, such as the type of the ship and its tonnage, and plotted a map that provides us a visual to better understand the data. Using digital technology helps us see things that we normally wouldn’t be able to . The following is an example of what Sean has accomplished. Be sure to read what Sean says in regard to interpreting the data.

Digital historic mapping has opened up new ways in which we can understand history. Making a map in which you can “see” data in a new way helps us to have a better grasp on what took place. Story maps help history come alive, making for a richer learning experience and a deeper understanding of the historical event. Having access to thousands of digital maps at our fingertips allows us the ability to study our world without ever leaving our sofa.

Thanks for reading!

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