Mapping the Past: American Panorama

As a digital historian, I am very interested in projects that move beyond the sphere of merely archiving information into those that actively interpret their sources. History involves more than making primary sources available; the best projects incorporate digital tools to encourage a deeper and more holistic understanding of the past, often through constructing meaningful narratives.

As such, the American Panorama project based out of the University of Richmond does an excellent job at incorporating technology to elaborate upon potentially dry, complicated, and challenging topics. As a self-described “Atlas of United States History,” the project presents carefully crafted interactive maps on a variety of subjects ranging from nineteenth century canals to mid-twentieth century redlining practices in cities. While the individual subjects don’t always seem to connect thematically, each notably reflects a kind of data that is best presented and explained visually.

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The Canals 1820-1860 map is a good example of a strong implementation of these basic principles. The creators have made a few crucial decisions that greatly improve the effectiveness of the map. First, the purpose and scope of the mapping is immediately clear, with a forty-year timeframe and a minimalist map that only includes bodies of water, cities, and the canals themselves – eschewing a natural tendency to try and include too much information. Any canal can be selected for focus, revealing basic information about its operation and details about what products were shipped via the canal. Notably, however, many of the canals do not have full information on the tonnage shipped, which makes a substantial part of the page irrelevant when focusing on smaller or less-used canals.

The other key factor involved in the mapping is the introduction of a temporal axis. With a slider in a bottom center section, the user can travel back and forth in time, seeing appropriate changes in the volume of goods shipped as well as the extent of the canals. This enables the most striking visualization of the project: by zooming out to a view encompassing all of the Northeast and then moving forward in time, a user can watch cities and canals both pop into existence as an important infrastructure system comes into being (Chicago, for instance, appears in 1833, the date of its founding). The addition of a temporal dimension is far from simple to implement, but is totally vital to the success of this visualization.

In many ways, the canal map is a clean, skillful implementation of data that would be difficult to conceptualize in a spreadsheet. There are some slight missteps: the graphed quantities are above the time axis are unclear, as while it is easy to assume that they correspond to tonnage of commodities shipped on canals, there’s no key that connects any individual line to a specific canal. Yet the map clearly achieves its overall purpose. The primary criticism is that this purpose itself is relatively niche, and the site struggles to effectively advocate for its own importance – hindered perhaps by the admission that the Erie Canal was significantly more utilized than any others, and that railroads quickly displaced canal traffic in the mid-nineteenth century.

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On the other hand, the majority of the other maps center on histories with more self-apparent importance. The Overland Trails map reinforces pre-existing knowledge about wagon trains and westward expansion in the nineteenth century in a way that helps connect concrete data to a well-covered – and perhaps even overly mythologized – portion of American history. Once again, there’s a temporal axis that is vital to understanding the development of sites along the trail and their overall usage. However, the most notable addition is the integration of primary source documents, namely diaries and journals of people traveling along the trail. Using these dated entries, the map also keeps track of approximately where the traveler would be, allowing the user to easily observe their progress while reading along with the accounts of the trip.

This works beautifully, highlighting primary sources that are tremendously interesting. Actually, many entries strikingly resemble the classic Oregon Trail computer game, reflecting on fixing broken wheel axles, trading at outposts, hunting buffalo, and even dealing with diarrhea and illness. The documents encompass three distinct trails, to California, to Oregon, and the Mormon trail to Utah. They also include the diary of the Donner Party, as well as their rescuers traveling from California east to assist. The level of effort necessary for this project is truly impressive, involving locating primary sources, transcribing the handwritten documents, and plotting their locations on the map itself. The available information space is so rich that a user can jump into nearly any diary and follow along the trail for an engaging and historically valuable experience.

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And yet, the most recently created maps are perhaps even more important, tackling problematic parts of American history and challenging a narrow sense of triumphant exceptionalism. In delving into America’s struggles with race and equality, maps such as The Forced Migration of Enslaved People and Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America provide new ways of analyzing and contextualizing injustice. I would say that any competent historian realizes our nation’s continual failures to embody the freedoms that we aspire to, but this kind of mapping presents inequality in a manner that any person can see and understand.

Having done some tentative GIS analysis of housing in Chicago, I was drawn to Mapping Inequality in particular. Redlining is a process studied in depth by urban historians, including Thomas Sugrue and Beryl Satter, but it is difficult to truly comprehend the way it works without actually seeing the neighborhoods laid out, and this is by far the best visualization that I’ve seen.

Using georeferencing, the project overlays primary source maps on top of the geography of the cities, demonstrating how neighborhoods are rated and further quantifying the percentages of neighborhood ratings depending on their distance from the city center. Each individual tract can be clicked on to get further information curated from primary source descriptions, including outright racist language about the “infiltration” of unwanted racial and ethnic groups that causes neighborhoods to be downgraded. The sheer breadth of data displayed here is remarkable, particularly in the Northeast. Major and minor cities are both represented, from Chicago, Detroit, and New York, to Decatur, IL and Altoona, PA. As with the other maps, this project is heavily rooted in primary source documents, and makes them come alive in striking ways.

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I intended my analysis to come with criticism as well as praise, but looking at the projects under the American Panorama umbrella, there’s both an underlying high level of quality and professionalism in their creation as well as a remarkable trajectory towards engaging with even more important subjects. These maps should receive more attention – and they feel particularly well-designed towards usage in classroom settings. With more important subjects under development, I eagerly await their upcoming work. This seems like the kind of model that other digital humanities projects should aspire to in terms of competence, relevance, and analysis, and will certainly be in my mind throughout my own work, even if on a technical level, this kind of project seems well outside my current capabilities.

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