April 1, 2014

Review: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States

In 1932, U.S. naval historian Charles O. Paullin and the eminent geographer John K. Wright published the first comprehensive atlas of America’s social, political, and economic development. Twenty years in the making, the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States contains nearly 700 maps extending across 163 plates and encompasses approximately 500 years of American history. This one-time state-of-the-art resource spatially analyzes topics ranging from the natural environment to far-reaching population and economic statistics to a number of social and political reform movements spanning the Colonial era through the first few years of the Great Depression. While the now eighty-two year-old Atlas interprets the past through a heavily European-American lens and may be of little obvious use to postwar historians engaged in more contemporary historiographical conversations, its pages do feature richly constructed maps that anyone interested in cartography or pre-New Deal U.S. history should find both instructive and pedagogically valuable.

Perhaps it was this latter point that encouraged Robert K. Nelson and his collaborators at the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab to build an interactive online version of the Atlas in 2013. For Nelson and company, the advanced capabilities of geographic information systems technologies and modern graphics editing software provided a rare opportunity to animate the Atlas, and thus bring Paullin and Wright’s optimal vision of the resource to life for a present-day audience of scholars, teachers, students, and geography enthusiasts. As J. K. Wright presciently stated around the time of the book’s publication, “the ideal historical atlas might well be a collection of motion-picture maps.” While Richmond’s lab is not the first institution to blend responsive web design with brilliant visualizations of historical maps—Susan Schulten and the University of Denver Libraries’ Mapping the Nation comes to mind—they have set a new standard in terms of how a product of digital scholarship can merge cutting-edge GIS technology with an approachable interface that allows for greater user interactivity.

The primary features of the 2013 Atlas are its elegant landing page, the virtual maps themselves, a dynamic sidebar, and a top-level navigation menu that includes the original introduction to the 1932 text, an “About” page, “Acknowledgments,” and a regularly updated blog: “Farther Afield.” First, the landing page (Fig. 1) closely adheres to current best practices in responsive web design. For instance, the single HTML page features both smooth and parallax scrolling, an alluring image gallery that rotates through oversized representations of four Atlas maps, and multiple entry points into the site’s main content. This page also explains what the Atlas is about using minimal text, includes an unobtrusive introductory video, and highlights the resource’s main reason for being in a simple tagline: “Old Atlas, New Functionality.” Significantly, the landing page—and the Atlas in general—is designed to be as readable and useful on mobile devices as it is on desktop and notebook computers.

Landing Page

Figure 1: Landing Page

The enhanced versions of Paullin and Wright’s 1932 maps comprise the heart of the project and signify its greatest strength. The Lab georeferenced and georectified the maps using the geographic information systems platform ArcGIS. This means that individual points on each map correspond to set spatial coordinates; the maps can then be warped using those coordinates to align them within a specific projection. They then touched up the maps in Photoshop and organized them as tiles in the Geospatial Data Abstraction Library (GDAL). In the Atlas, users can toggle between “georectified” and “plate” versions of the maps using the website’s sidebar function—although the “Cartography, 1492-1867” maps are only visible in “plate” form. The sidebar (Fig. 2) also enables users to access the resource’s “Table of Contents” as well as the original 1932 text used to historically contextualize the Atlas’ eighteen chapters. (Fig. 3) Many of the maps, including those treating conflicts between American Indians and the United States Government, European immigration, and presidential elections, feature playable animations that visualize particular spatial changes over time. Other maps, such as those depicting population density or wealth distribution, feature pop-up text boxes that, when clicked, highlight relevant statistics and other key pieces of information associated with a given section of the map. (Fig. 4)

Table of Contents

Figure 2: Sidebar in “table of contents” view

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Figure 3: Sidebar in “text” view

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Figure 4: Pop-up text-box

Several maps are also accompanied by links to blog posts written by project team members. Ostensibly, the blog posts provide a more analytical perspective on mapmaking and geography as a discipline in addition to further historical context. For instance, Scott Nesbit’s post, “Let’s Look for the Great Migration,” (Fig. 5) interprets African-American population change and movement from 1900 to 1930 based on both the Atlas’ “Colored Population” maps and his own research on space, place, and the African American experience.

A critical aspect of both the digital Atlas and the 1932 edition is the level of interdisciplinary teamwork required to produce each resource. While Paullin and Wright were careful to mention that “numerous scholars of history and geography” aided in their Atlas’ development, the Digital Scholarship Lab’s version aligns with the digital humanities’ emphasis on collaborative scholarly production.

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Figure 5: “Let’s Look for the Great Migration” blog post

For example, project manager and historian Robert Nelson rendered the map enhancements, designed the interface, and coded the resource. Historian Scott Nesbit oversaw much of the research collecting and organized the Atlas’ historical and spatial evidence. Programmer Nate Ayers georeferenced numerous maps, developed graphics, and produced the introductory video. GIS analyst Claire Clement georeferenced maps and developed georeferencing guidelines and procedures. Other scholars and undergraduate students worked on the geodatabase, built vector shapefiles, and OCR’ed (Optical Character Recognition) Atlas text so that it could be properly stored, edited, and searched. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided generous funding and support.

As technologically groundbreaking and visually stunning as the digital Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States is, areas for improvement exist. For one, there is no obvious way to search the Atlas’ written content. A search bar embedded within the Table of Contents might allow users to better access the website’s contextual elements. Second, due to the project’s dedication to replicating how the original Atlas interpreted spatial change over time, the enhanced map animations are, in some cases, more underwhelming than awe inspiring. In other words, the digital Atlas does not feature inherently “new” animated content that adds to—as opposed to reimagines— Paullin and Wright’s 1932 interpretation. Third, aside from the blog’s commenting function, there are no spaces designated for public dialogue. This may be for good reason. The site’s creators probably wanted the maps themselves to remain the focal point for users and did not wish to highlight side conversations that could potentially deviate from the project’s overarching mission. However, I wonder if the Atlas might benefit from open discussions about, for example, how mapmaking or history and geography as disciplines have changed since the early 1930s. Alternatively, people might want to discuss the broader implications of publishing—and, in this case perhaps, reinforcing—a Eurocentric geographical perspective. These issues aside, Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab has produced what is sure to be the authoritative digital historical atlas for some time to come.

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One response to “Review: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States”

  1. Katie Steffan says:

    I really like this site and am using it a few times for the class that I am constructing for my final project. Right now, I am using some of the early maps as a starting point to talk about bias. The early maps on this site were all created by Europeans. I am asking students to look at these and get inside the European mindset on the eve of North American exploration. Why is Africa drawn so small? What obstacles are drawn in the ocean?

    I am also definitely going to use this site when talking about important elections, like that of 1860. I think it is very important for students to actually see the breakdown by county. Why would one area be attracted to a particular candidate? Was the “north” and “south” actually unified into one solid voting block? What does that tell you about Americans position on slavery? And so on.

    This site is really great for use in a classroom for two reasons. First, it (at least for me) is easy to navigate. Second, it is visually very appealing. One of the biggest problems I am encountering right now is sites that just look outdated. While the information is valuable, I am afraid that students will not spend time on them because of design issues.

    I agree that some sort of public engagement with the material may be beneficial. There is very interesting and important material contained in the site and I think that people would definitely participate if given a chance. I would love to have a way for my students to post their observations directly on the site. Having discussions about this history is also extremely beneficial because it allows those in the digital humanities to get an idea about what the public likes and dislikes when it comes to sites like this. Having online discussions about history in general helps further the discipline and (hopefully) democratize it.

By Will Tchakirides | RSS | © 2012 under a CC BY 3.0 license


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