Historical mapping and Geographical Information Systems (GIS)

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 outputs illustrated with custom maps. GIS can be used in a variety of contexts to make sense of information with a spatial aspect, whether at the level of buildings and streets or at the level of nations, and to perform sophisticated geospatial and topographical analyses. However, without training in geographical techniques, tools, and even terminology, it can be challenging for historians to begin to work with this material. 

Course Details

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 QGIS, a cross-platform open-source mapping package which is rapidly growing in popularity.

The course is focused on using maps and GIS as tools in spatial analysis of other primary sources, not simply on drawing maps. Advanced skills in using spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel is essential (i.e. you must be confident using formulae and functions in Excel), and experience of using relational databases such as Microsoft Access is strongly recommended.

The two days are designed as one course, and most students will wish to take them together (for the full fee of £80).

The charge for attending only the first or only the second day is £45. Select your option of choice when ordering.

  • You might want to attend only Day 1 if you want a “taster”.
  • You might want to attend only Day 2 if you have already experimented with GIS software on your own or in other contexts, or if you have previously studied Geography.

Otherwise all students are strongly encouraged to attend both days.

As this workshop will be taught online via Zoom, all participants should ensure that they have a desktop or laptop computer that they are able to install their own software on (i.e. Windows or Mac – not a Chromebook or iPad etc – and not locked down by security settings that would prevent you from installing QGIS). QGIS can be downloaded for free at https://qgis.org/en/site/forusers/download.html 

Course Outline

Day One – Historical Mapping

The first day of this two-day course introduces the fundamental concepts of cartography through a discussion of the development of mapping techniques through western history. 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. We will also consider what this process of development in cartography means for how you can use different types of historical maps as sources in your own work.

The second part of the day considers how other types of historical source material can be used to create your own maps. We will consider the ways in which many types of historical sources are inherently spatial, in that they describe things that happened or existed in particular locations. Additional steps are almost always required to translate historical descriptions of places (such as addresses, towns, parishes or jurisdictions, or vernacular descriptions) into cartographic locations. We will discuss a range of broad approaches to doing this.

  • Fundamental cartographic concepts (coordinates, projections, meridians, etc.)
  • Understanding locations in historical sources and how they might be mapped?
  • Exploring online historical resources that use maps for inspiration
  • Preparing data to be mapped – exploring ways to find coordinates
  • Using basic online map tools – Google MyMaps

There are no prerequisites for this day, but all students should ensure they have a Google (including Gmail) account available and are confident with Microsoft Excel to a relatively advanced level (e.g. sorting data, using number formats, using formulae).

Day Two – Mapping Historical Data with QGIS

This second workshop introduces the the practicalities of mapping historical information using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software.

GIS can do much more than simply create maps as illustrations – it is designed to be an analytical tool. Historians approaching their work with spatial research questions in mind can explore patterns, trends, and connections in their source material, and relationships with space, distance, and even topography, in ways that would seldom otherwise be possible.

However, historians not only have to come to terms with the cartographic and technical learning curves that come with the use of GIS but must also address the added complication of changing geographies over time. These complexities can be overcome, turning GIS into an extremely powerful research tool. We will use QGIS software to view and manipulate historical data to create thematic mapping to illustrate social, demographic, and chronological patterns.

Through various exercises, we will focus on exploring these key points:

  • GIS is a database, rather than a drawing – a GIS project depends on tabular (spreadsheet style) data
  • Geographical data can come in many different digital formats (raster, vector, polygon, point, tabular)
  • Historical data must be prepared for use with a GIS (geo-coding tabular or textual data, and geo-referencing images) – and the preparatory work for geocoding, often in a separate spreadsheet or database, is often the most important step
  • GIS is designed for working with and combining existing geographical datasets, and literally drawing your own map elements is a last resort – we will explore ways to find data (both current and historical) to help you begin mapping your own material quickly
  • Combining different sets of data often helps to answer research questions – we will explore some ways you might do this

No previous experience of using GIS software is necessary, but all students should ensure they are confident with spreadsheets such as Microsoft Excel to an advanced level (e.g. being familiar with functions such as VLOOKUP), or have experience using relational databases such as Microsoft Access, Filemaker Pro, or other SQL based systems.