Blog Post

Mapping and Spatial History


This past Wednesday the Harvard History Department held a seminar entitled “What is Digital History?” Three of the four faculty presenters - Vince Brown, Maya Jasanoff, and Kelly O’Niell - demonstrated ways of using mapping to enhance pedagogy in an undergraduate classroom while the fourth, Emma Rothschild, shared how she used a tool called Gephi to visualize the connections between historical actors and the wider world in the small town of Angueleme in France. I left the seminar thinking about the similarities and differences between using mapping techniques for teaching, scholarship, pubic history, and for social and political activism. I also have since been pondering what kinds of problems arise from using digital mapping in the study of history and what sorts of digital literacy are required to address them.

When presenting a visualization of embarkations and disembarkations of slave ships as growing circles linked to locations on a map of Africa and the Americas, Vince Brown was careful to address the potential problems of reifying the hollow artifact of a slave traders’ record by animating them. While showing certain possibilities for a new aesthetics of imagining the kinds of information contained in what Brown suggested we call a “captabase” (rather than database) – the nearly 35,000 voyages compiled by David Eltis and David Richardson – for example, he maintained that historians not be deluded by the empiricist’s certitude. In terms of teaching, the question becomes how we best equip students to move beyond simply applying new tools and get them to interrogate the historic material and the technology simultaneously in order to question the underlying assumptions, to mentally reverse-engineer the digital mapping techniques they use.

Some graphic representations of the slave trade moving from the coast further into the interior of Africa, for example, are based on the assumption that the names of slaves who were disembarked from slave ships interdicted by the British were accurately given and recorded (as those names are then linked by historians to ethno-geographic regions in Africa). Yet, there is reason to believe that slaves might strategically exploit slavetraders’ stereotypes – that “Coramantee” slaves were likely to revolt, Angolan slaves were especially suited to the cultivation of rice, “Igbo” slaves were likely to commit suicide, etc. – in a context heavy with fear of recapture. Here is just one example in which it would be important for students to spot the problematic assumption before taking an arrow depicting the growth of the slave trade into interior regions of Africa as “fact.” The more general question is: to what extent do visual representations of historic trends render more seemingly objective that which is inherently subjective, messy and necessarily complicated?

Perhaps the most commonly used tool for historic mapping in academia is GIS, although the most easily accessible tool is probably Google Earth. Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis provides some good examples of the kinds of work being done with historical GIS and the Association of American Geographers (AAG) has a Historical GIS Clearinghouse and Forum where they have usefully summarized many major mapping projects led by large research universities and other institutions. Using GIS, images of historic maps can be plotted along the parameters of latitude and longitude, and manipulated in order to synch up with ArcView and other GIS softwares that then allow historians to overlay multiple layers of information. There are a growing number of online programs which allow users to create their own maps and do not require expensive software (or offer expensive software free of cost). WorldMap is a good example of one such open source tool that can be used for any region of the globe, whereas SocialEplorer provides an example of a program that has both free and subscription versions but is limited in scope to the United States.

These ever-new and more powerful tools for historical mapping raise issues of equity and access. When I was teaching high school in East Los Angeles, for example, I had to search for ways to teach students how to do the same kind of things I had been able to do using ArcView GIS in college because our high school did not have the such software. Social Explorer provided a solution, and my students created projects that related digital mapping to contemporary issues in their own neighborhood (here is a more detailed description which forms one chapter of Geography and Social Justice in the Classroom for those ineterested). Although I had generally understood the census as being used historically as a racist classificatory system and means of oppression – for red-lining practices, housing segregation, immigration quotas, district gerrymandering, and the like – through these students’ projects I saw first hand how young people who could use the demographic census data in an empowering way. To me, the more general question becomes: who will have the resources and skills to produce and interpret digital maps in a way that is meaningful not only in the history classroom but beyond?

Although there is always so much more to discuss, maybe we can begin by taking up these broad questions. To summarize: my experience with historic mapping has left me wondering:

  • (i) What are the similarities and differences between using historic mapping for teaching, for scholarship, for public history, and for political action or social justice?
  • (ii) What sorts of problems are created by the use of digital mapping and what kinds of digital literacy are needed to address them?
  • (iii) To what extent do visual representations of historic trends render more seemingly objective that which is inherently subjective, messy and necessarily complicated?
  • (iv) Who will have the resources and skills to produce and interpret maps in a way that is meaningful in history classrooms and beyond, and what is at stake in terms of identity formation – how “we” understand “ourselves” and people like “us” in the past – and in terms of social and political activism in the present?


Ben, thanks for this great first post in our series. I just had a few thoughts about the things you've said.

First, I'd never even thought about a situation such as the one you described with the people who claim to be from different tribes and thus a map of those people is inaccurate. That thought made me wonder what other maps I've seen have been inaccurate because of poor or skewed data. In the past, I've tended to think of maps as "objective," but I think your example is a great instance in which the subjects of the map have created ambiguity. It would be interesting to do a case study of maps whose data was skewed from the outset by inaccuracy (like this one) as opposed to maps whose data was skewed by the collectors, or skewed by the cartographers, and why. (I'm sure this has already been done. I'm just not aware of it.)

Second, I think digital maps can help to demonstrate messiness while still providing some order. With animation, tools such as Neatline, and probably other things, we can represent the fluidity of borders and the potential for inaccuracy on maps themselves rather than needing another map or a lengthy explication. That's not to say that all the problems of mapping can be solved digitally, but I think digital methods can help.

It is certainly true, though, that there's a relatively steep learning curve with mapping software and especially map annotation/animation software. (I speak as one who's currently trying to work Neatline unsuccessfully.) Even though mapping has in some ways become more simple (just using Google Maps or Google Earth), doing more complex analysis requires some additional training that falls outside traditional historians' toolkits. So even though basic mapping is more democratized, there is still a divide. The divide, though, is between computer-literate people and computer non-users, as opposed to professional historians/cartographers v. amateur historians/mapmakers. It's possible that reading and interpreting digital maps, especially ones with bells and whistles, may also be problematic for people with limited or no computer literacy.

Of course, access to digital maps is a problem for people without computers. So the advantages of interpretation that one gains using digital may be lost in an educational setting where computers simply aren't available. I think one of the beauties of digital maps is the individual person's opportunity to navigate them for himself or herself. Just seeing a projection on a screen that someone else manipulates isn't allowing the map its full range of usefulness, so a classroom with only a single computer, though better than nothing, may negate the benefits of a digital map.

Just a few thoughts I've had recently. The issue of mapping has only been on my radar for a short time, so I'm still working through ideas about objectivity and such that perhaps others have worked out more fully.


Hi Ben and thanks for a great post! This is a very interesting topic, which I am thinking a great deal of myself, since I examine how computer games spread historical narratives. Maps are naturally a huge part of that.

I have a few random thoughts on the idea of representation and maps. When it comes to use digital mapping in education I would say that there really is more a matter of difference in scale of possibilities when compared to using old paper maps in the classroom. A problem with digital maps, which calls for digital literacy, is certainly the possibility of manipulating them in order to enforce a particular historical narrative. The media being so visual in its representation has a very persuasive impact, which renders it all the more important that the technology is not reserved for a “chosen few”.  Perhaps some sort of lessons in constructing narratives with maps could be a way of making people appreciate the usefulness of these tools, without being blinded by their whizz-bang potential.

As tools for visualising overarching historical narratives maps almost become eqvivalent with history itself, which is a problem. And sweeping historical narrative needs to look not only at historical space and movement, but also on other things which maps cannot represent as well.  For instance how do you visualize things such as mentalities without making them overly schematic?

The fact that maps are abstractions may be trivial to point out, but i think an understanding of this probably is one of the best ways of reaching 'digital literacy' on the subject.  The combination of messiness and order that Abby poits out, may be part of the problem. All history is messy by definition, but it needs to be structured, put in order to be taught, but it is precisely this process which I find the most challenging. The choices we make when we construct a historical narrative are a doubleedged sword in this regard. Providing abilities of scrutinizing these choices but at the same time learn the digital handicraft may be a good compromise?



Thanks for your responses Abby and Thomas, 

I don't think that it is trivial to say that maps are abstractions, Thomas - you provide an important reminder in the same way that it is important to remain aware of the history of cartography as a mechanism of power, a point which may seem obvious but should never be forgotten as we think through the uses (misuses, and abuses) of mapping in the past and today.

I agree with both of you that this issue of digital literacy and access will be at the heart of digital developments in mapping. My friend joked yesterday that soon humanity will be divided between those who know how to write computer code and those who do not (easy for him to say as someone who codes). While I disagree with him and think he exaggerates the point for effect, it points to these same issues that Thomas points to of who is in a position to manipulate digital maps which in turn enforce particular historical naarratives. 

In terms of the need to structure the messiness in order to teach, I also wonder to what extent educators should be responsible for helping students make a mess out of order when need be - to develop the critical thinking capacities to evaluate multiple and competing perspectives and to live with unresolved tensions (that there is rarely one "right" answer)? Must we, and anyone engaged in teaching, construct the historical narratives or can we empower students to construct their own?

Thanks again for your comments and I will look forward to continued conversations around these issues!


Wow! What an insightful discussion. I'm wondering whether the current tools allow for choice in map view.  For example, if I were to create a digital map would it be possible to provide the viewer with choices on how information is displayed? While this of course does not get rid of the problem of people manipulating maps to push an agenda, it could be a useful teaching tool (lesson in map manipulation).  

Also, I love the idea of using mapping to show flows across borders, especially country borders, which are often arbitrary and not well policed.


"I'm wondering whether the current tools allow for choice in map view," wrote HASTAC scholar Christina Davidson.

That depends upon the map designer's choices.

The landmarks and boundaries are essentially a database that the designer will "frame" using the interface of the map design. If you use an existing interface, then yes, you replicate its ideologies.

But you can replace these with ideologies that contextualize your map.

For example, my UNC colleague Rebecca P. Shores has proposed that in mapping mediaeval geographies, it might be appropriate to orient your map in a T-O configuration.

If we do this to a modern map, we get:

or maybe:

or even, eventually...*

* (I am not a medievalist - I do 19th century - this is entirely speculative)

After all, the universe has no objective right side up, and political geography is ephemeral as well as ideologically constructed.


Rebecca, can the designer choose to allow the viewer to choose? In other words, as the designer can I set it up so that viewers of the map can choose the way they view it? Thanks!


This is a very interesting discussion - thanks everyone.  I am currently working on a digital history project with a class of undergrads using GoogleMaps API.  You can use it for free, but it requires some basic HTML and JavaScript.  The students are placing histories of Latinos and Latinas on a map of Iowa.  I find it interesting because Google Maps is such a prevalent and authoritative source of geographical information - what happens when you appropriate a tool like this to tell stories of people who are under-represented in the historical record?

Benjamin, I am very interesting in Vince Brown's idea of the "captabase."  Do you know if he has written anything about it?


Audrey, this sounds like an awesome activity! What sources are you mapping? Is it demographic information, or are there other sources involved?


This is an updated and intime discussion. I am new here, nice to meet you all.

Geobrowsig is going to be the next level of understanding, mapping data in spatial history is an effective tools to study and learn, just the technologies shoud be litle bit updated. I try many tools but Google Earth and Google Earth Plugin remain today the best tools available on the market and for people, but the time should be litlebit better developed.

My approach for computig data inside google earth was basically to simulate the "Dial" a Staircase , as astronomer Edward Walter Maunder use to call it or the Dial of Ahaz, Hezekiah's Pool is located in the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, was once a reservoir forming part of the city's ancient water system. The pool is supposed to be the one referred to in 2 Kings 18:17, and there is a belief that this is the upper pool where King Hezekiah, King of Judah, met messengers from the king of Assyria and the the prophet Isaiah.


Intro to the Narrative: The Dial of Ahaz: Hezekiah, King of Judah, was sick unto death and prayed earnestly for an extension to his days. The prophet Isaiah came to him to say that 15 years would be added to his life, and the Lord would send him a sign of this. “Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sundial of Ahaz, 10 degrees backward. So the sun returned 10 degrees, by which degrees it was gone down.” Isaiah 38:8.

In the prophecy there are two main message: degrees and step. For the degrees its impossible to move the shadow ten step back, using longitude and latitude is more easy to simulate it geo spatial map, as about the step.. i decide that can be translated in altitude or the third eyes in 3d dimension.

Well the results is learning with map because drowing circle increased fibonacci sequence and intersection with other important point of interest i draw a map where rotating by 137.5 degrees it bring me in a direction to learn about dynamics and mouvment that personally before the map i have no approach.

For example, following the map i draw i doscover that the ten step back goes to chad, I discover that there are Dynamic Linkage between Ground Zero, Sahel Greening and Intense Atlantic Hurricanes, actually i learn more things follwing a starting point than before.. i mean i fall in love to learn more moving myself in a spatial geographic sphere guided by an information come from a master.

Well i invite you to explore part of our KML with google Earth plugin uploaded on our lab, The map is going to be updated day by day, but i am sure that if you like use a geobrowser you will like our job., articles including many map, narrative ( and Hypothesis ( is what I follow.

Thank you for reading me and feel free register inside the lab, full KML can be available for people that love this experience and research.

Paolo Pomponi




Yes the designer can provide choices. I aim to let viewers toggle between 2 maps: 1785 and 1850, denoting the text's setting and publication date, and choose between showing and obscuring purely counterfactual landmarks (the barber shop, the pie shop, tunnel, etc.)


Ok great! That's exactly what I was looking for. Thank you!


Audrey - I think the reference to "captabases" was from Johanna Drucker's book SpecLab but I can check with Vince Brown and get back to you. 

I agree with Tina that this sounds like an awesome project you are undertaking, and was thinking about your comment about the need to render more visible certain "underrpresnted stories" when looking at the front page election results on the New York Times - I was thinking about issues of  official invisibility when looking at the images of election results by state broken down by race where they had N/A for all non-white racial categories in Iowa. That seems to me precisely the kind of erasures you are working against.