Historical Mapping and Geographical Information Systems

Due to a cancellation, one space is now available on the January course! Please apply as soon as possible.
Course date(s): 
11 Jan 2017 to 12 Jan 2017
Course tutor(s): 


The ‘spatial turn’ is now well established in history and scholars, publishers and readers now frequently expect to see space to be used as a category of analysis, maps used as sources, and research illustrated with custom maps. However, without training in geographical techniques, tools, and even terminology, it can be challenging for historians to begin to work with this material. This two day course is designed to first introduce the history and concepts of mapping, along with the most basic ways of producing your own maps, before then moving on to a second day focusing use of Quantum GIS (QGIS), a cross-platform open source mapping package which is rapidly growing in popularity. 

Course Details

The two days are designed as one course, and most students will wish to take them together (for the full fee of £120). However you may wish to only attend day one as a ‘taster’, or if you only want to learn about the history of mapping and create only very simple maps of your own; you may wish to attend only day two if you already have some subject knowledge, if you have extensive experience with databases, or have already experimented with GIS software.  The charge for attending only the first or only the second day is £70. Select your option of choice when ordering.

Day One – Historical Mapping

The first day of this two day course introduces the history of western mapping, and thereby the fundamental geographical concepts underlying the creation and interpretation of maps. Broadly this covers a progression from textual description, to schematic maps such as itineraries, through “birds eye” depictions, to the origins of modern surveying techniques. Different types of historical map, and the possibilities and problems associated with interpreting them, are discussed to consider how they might be used in various types of research.

By discussing how maps were made in the past we both understand how to interpret them, and see the evolution of the techniques and concepts required to make your own maps:

  • Basic mapping concepts (projections, meridians, co-ordinate systems, etc.)
  • Thinking about spatial data – what can be mapped?
  • Exploring online historical resources that use maps to display data
  • Preparing data to be mapped – recording coordinates
  • Using basic online map tools – Google Tables and MyMaps

There are no prerequisites for this day, but all students should ensure they have a Google (including Gmail) account available and are familiar with Microsoft Excel.

Having completed day one, students should be able to move directly to day two if they wish to develop their map making skills beyond the rudimental level, or to conduct spatial analysis as part of their research.

Day Two – Mapping Historical Data with QGIS

Researchers increasingly see the value of including mapping in their work, but the software used for creating maps - Geographic Information Systems (GIS) – can do much more than simply create maps as illustrations. GIS is being used in a variety of contexts to make sense of information with a spatial component, be it at the level of buildings and streets or at the level of nations, and to perform sophisticated geospatial and topographical analyses. Historians approaching their work with geographical research questions in mind not only have to come to terms with the cartographical and technical learning curves that come with the use of GIS, but they also have to address the added complication of changing geographical units (both administrative boundaries and physical topography) over time. Fortunately, these complexities can be overcome, turning GIS into an extremely powerful research tool.

This workshop introduces the key concepts and the practicalities of mapping historical information using GIS software. It will focus on a number of areas:

  • The notion of GIS as a database – where data is graphical as well as alphanumeric – rather than as ‘map-drawing tool’
  • Different types of geographical and historical data (vector, raster, polygon, point, tabular), and the various approaches to combining them to answer research questions
  • Sources of existing geographical datasets (both current and historical) to help you begin mapping your own data quickly
  • The preparation of historical data for use with a GIS (geo-coding and geo-referencing)

The workshop will focus on hands-on practical sessions using QGIS software to view and manipulate historical data, and will provide the opportunity for generating (and analysing) the kinds of thematic mapping that is the product of this research tool.

Day One is not a pre-requisite, but should be familiar with concepts such as projection, coordinate systems, and layers. Confidence with spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel is essential and familiarity with relational databases such as Microsoft Access would also be beneficial. No previous experience of using GIS software is necessary.