A new space for history: MapTiler and HGIS

Sheet 28 of the London Ontario Fire Insurance Plan revised 1922, showing the South Street Hospital.

Sheet 28 of the London Ontario Fire Insurance Plan revised 1922, showing the South Street Hospital.

It’s time to say a few words on the spatial turn in our Digital History class. But not too many words – I have a lot of mapping to do!

You may or may not already know that I’m a map person. I’ve always found maps to be interesting to look at, but not until recently have I seriously considered how they might affect the way I do history. However, as many of my colleagues have also noticed, the possibilities that mapping lends to history are seemingly endless. This is especially apparent after listening to two guest speakers in our Digital History course discuss their professional uses of mapping.

The first guest speaker was Mark Tovey of Garrison Theatricals. He gave a detailed presentation of how he used archival sources to recreate what London’s old British Garrison might have looked like. We were fortunate to have him join us in Victoria Park, where we used MapTiler and iGIS to superimpose historical maps on satellite imagery of the ground on which we were currently standing. This made it very easy for us to picture what past generations of Londoners would have seen there. We were also given the opportunity, of course, to try these programs for ourselves. Once I had the right version, MapTiler was easy to use, although I wish we could overlay more than one map at a time. But we have full GIS programs for that.

On Monday we participated in a very informative ArcGIS tutorial by Professor Donald Lafreniere. He showed us how he uses HGIS (“historical geographic information systems”) to uncover new information about movement, social structures and daily life in 19th-century London (Ontario). Using georeferenced Fire Insurance Plans as the background, he displayed information gathered from city directories, assessment rolls, and censuses. This data in turn could be compared, joined together, turned on and off, and highlighted to produce new graphical representations of his research. By specifically displaying domestic workers within a single neighbourhood, for example, Lafreniere and his colleagues discovered several clusters of domestic workers, and were then able to identify certain houses in the area as being boarding-houses. I had never really thought before of using maps as a database to be queried, but this approach seems to lend itself well to historical research, especially that pertaining to urban environments like London or Harlem.

Another thing we have been encouraged to consider is the definition of what constitutes a map. Some of the most important maps we know of don’t look like conventional maps at all (see, for example, Charles Minard’s map of Napoleon’s march into Russia). Even the strangest-looking maps help us become more aware of the spatial dimensions of our research, and they help us organize information in new ways. For those of you who might be interested in a general history of maps, I’d highly recommend Simon Garfield’s On the Map, which I read over the summer.

For my part, I have decided that I would like to use mapping in my first Digital History project. While I won’t have time to create as rich a database as Lafreniere and his team have put together, I am interested to see what will come of using HGIS to explore the history of London’s South Street Hospital. My initial plan is to examine how the building itself changes over the years, and to see if that can tell me anything new about the development of medical practices in London. However, I am sure that once I have my findings plotted I will discover new lines of questions and surprising answers. As the semester moves forward, perhaps I will also find uses for MapTiler (and maybe, just maybe, I will find the time to do a lesson or two on The Geospatial Historian…). My only regret is that I didn’t learn how to do this sooner!

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