Digital Experiments with Historical Maps

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These are listed in roughly chronological order, from newest (at the top) to oldest.

Slatington: Past and Present is based on arcgis online and intends to be a map exhibit that contrasts images from postcards depicting scenes in Slatington, PA in the early 1980s with photographs of those same scenes in the 2010s, a little more than a century later.

I've added a clickable map for students in my HIS 218 course to pin their locations. This was something that I wanted to try using Google Maps API to see how easy it was to customize.

My most recent digital map project is Population change in selected cities, towns and village of Vilna guberniia. On this map, you can toggle between layers and view population in 1903, population in about 2000, population decrease over that time, or population increase. These towns and villages were once part of Vilna guberniia in the Russian Empire before 1914, and they are now located in Lithuania and Belarus. This is an area where my grandparents once lived before they emigrated to the United States. There was a lot of work with this project, finding the data, creating data tables, working with Cyrillic in the data tables, getting the layers zipped as shape files, uploading the files, and then working with imagery. It is hard for me to even begin to estimate how many hours went into this. The map shows that the towns/villages/cities in the area grew quite a bit over the century, but for some of the villages, there was little or no growth.

Here is a map example that I have worked on as a test case use of scanning a historical map: The Belarus-Lithuanian Border--you can click to enlarge the map. My basic intent was to show how the border between Lithuania and Belarus has shifted in the last hundred years. "Lithuania" did not exist as an independent country before 1914, and the old map that I used for this project showed "Vilna guberniia," one of the provinces of the Russian Empire, but there was no cartographic information on that map. So, for this project, I had to digitize the map, geo-reference it and then overlay it with a present-day map of the region. The result was not as clear as I had hoped. The darker red line running from upper right to lower left is the current border between Belarus and Lithuania. The former Vilna guberniia boundaries is a fat, pinkish color and you can see it faded within Belarus. One thing that the map does show is that the village from which my grandparents emigrated (Krevo) was once within Lithuania and is now located in Belarus.

I have only been able to do a little with GIS (geographic information systems) and maps because of the time and learning-curve involved. There is really nothing historical at all about this map at the bottom of this page, "Pennsylvania Abandoned Mines and Instances of Groundwater Contamination," but it was my first attempt to use arcgis online. (See below.)

Another digital map experiment involved my Reston historical map assignment. In the assignment students view aerial photographs, topographic maps and Google Earth images of the Reston area in Northern Virginia and identify what has changed in the last forty years. The answer is that a lot has changed.

I next worked on digitizing some very large maps of St. Petersburg for my Russian history course. Again, while the assignment for these maps involves some straight-forward map interpretation, the difficulty for me lay in the process of actually digitizing the very large maps (stitching smaller scans together, and then using zoomify to publish the maps on the web).


Now, the first attempt to work with a map in a content setting for my history courses was the Clickable Map of the Geography of Russia. This was an edited, digital map of the Soviet Union to which I added clickable hot spots. In terms of 2006 technology options, this was pretty far up the food chain at the time.

Technically, my very first digital map was the Blank Western Civilization map, which I traced, scanned and then edited in Photoshop. It was published on the web in various different formats for students in my online courses.

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Pennsylvania Abandoned Mines and Instances of Groundwater Contamination