Unfolding History with the Help of the GIS Technology: a Scholar-Librarian Quest for Creating Digital Collections

  1. 1. Natasha Smith

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  2. 2. Robert Allen

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  3. 3. Anne Whisnant

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  4. 4. Kevin Eckhardt

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

  5. 5. Elise Moore

    University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Unfolding History with the
Help of the GIS Technology:
a Scholar-Librarian
Quest for Creating Digital
Smith, Natasha
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Allen, Robert
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Whisnant, Anne
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Eckhardt, Kevin
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Moore, Elise
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Carolina Digital Library and Archives (CDLA)
and Documenting the American South
(DocSouth) are a digital library laboratory
that creates, develops, and maintains online
collections regarding the history of the American
South with materials drawn primarily from
the outstanding archival holdings of the UNC
library. In this presentation, we plan to
demonstrate how the close partnership between
UNC librarians and faculty forges its path
in the frontier of digital humanities. Our
experience clearly demonstrates that digital
historical scholarship cannot be done on the
old model of the scholar laboring alone, “the
solitary scholar who churns out articles and
books behind the closed door of his office” (see
Kenneth Price, 2008). By bringing together
faculty and librarians’ expertise, collaborators
endeavor to use digital technologies in a variety
of innovative ways to collect, organize, and
display data and materials that illuminate
the temporal and spatial unfolding of historic
events. Recent experimental work with GIS
helps us to better understand how the use of
digital technologies changes the way we do
research in humanities and how it facilitates
learning in the classroom. Indeed, “GIS, in
combination with other branches of scholarship,
has the potential to provide a more integrated
understanding of history” (see Ian N. Gregory,
At the same time, the wide array of issues
(digitizing and geo-referencing of Sanborn and
other historic maps, use of JavaScript mapping
APIs, such as Google Maps and the open-source
Open Layers, for zooming and hotspot addition,
layering and geo-tagging scholarly content) will
be presented based on several completed and in
progress digital history collections built in close
collaboration of UNC librarians working with
UNC scholars.
1. “Going to the Show” (
) is the first digital archive devoted
to the early experience of cinema across
an entire state. In a research project, Prof.
Allen collaborated with digital publishing
experts and special collections librarians
at UNC to create an online, interactive
digital collection of maps, photos, postcards,
newspaper clippings, architectural drawings,
city directories and historical commentary that
illuminate and reconstruct cultural and social
life during the first three decades of the
century in North Carolina. Supported
by a grant from the N.C. State Library and
a National Endowment for the Humanities
Digital Humanities Fellowship, “Going to the
Show” (GttS) developed the innovative system
for layering content on electronically stitched
and geo-referenced Sanborn Fire Insurance
Maps. Especially in its highly detailed case
study of early moviegoing in Wilmington, N.C.,
GttS demonstrates the extraordinary potential
for illuminating community history through
the interaction of documentary material and
Sanborn maps (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Google Maps AP1 used to present 1915
SAnborn map with layered historic materials
to document the moviegoing in North Carolina.
2. Building on the digital history project “Going
to the Show”, the project team decided to
expand the reach of their expertise by creating
a web-based toolkit that will allow libraries,
schools, museums, local history societies, and
other community organizations to preserve,
document, interpret, display, and share the
history of their downtowns. Called “
Street, Carolina: Recovering the History of
Downtown Across North Carolina
,” the toolkit
will provide users with a flexible, user-
friendly digital platform on which they can
add a wide variety of “local” data: historical
and contemporary photographs, postcards,
newspaper ads and articles, architectural
drawings, historical commentary, family papers,
and excerpts from oral history interviews—all
keyed to and layered on top of digitized Sanborn
Fire Insurance Maps. The toolkit will consist of
a PHP-based web application and a JavaScript
API. The web application will be compact in
size, resource-light, and easy to install on the
local organization’s own web server or that of a
third-party web-hosting service. It will provide
administrative tools for configuring the site,
creating place markers, creating simple web
pages for content, and customizing the look
and feel (see Figure 2). These place markers
can then be associated with images, stories, or
other content, providing a visual link between
the content and related physical locations.
The map interface is the focal point of the
software and will allow users to explore content
associated with specific geographic locations by
interacting with place markers, or "push-pins,"
overlaid on top of historic maps. Clicking on a
place marker's icon will display an information
bubble which can contain text, images, and
links to additional content. The user will be
able to view and effortlessly pan across entire
downtowns as a seamless integration of multiple
high-resolution map pages; zoom from a bird-
eye view to the smallest cartographic feature;
compare successive map iterations showing the
same building, block, or neighborhood; and
overlay any of these views with contemporary
satellite and map images at the same scale.
The JavaScript API will allow users to include
digitized maps created for other CDLA projects
as layers in their own websites or mash-ups
which use the Google Maps or Open Layers
mapping APIs. For example, a user could
embed an historic map in a blog post or add
a Sanborn Map as a layer to their existing
website which uses Google Maps to show the
location of homes that are listed on the
Register of Historical Places
. MSC is funded
by a private funding and an NEH Start-up
Grant. Development for this project began in
October 2009. We plan to release the toolkit and
pilot projects developed in collaboration with
external partners in summer 2010, prior to the
start of the conference.
Figure 2. “
Main Street, Carolina: Recovering the
History of Downtown Across North Carolina
” tool kit.
Administrative form for entering historical documents.
3. “Driving through Time: The Digital Blue
Ridge Parkway in North Carolina” will present
an innovative visually and spatially based
model for illustrating North Carolina’s key
role in creating the Parkway, representing
the twentieth-century history of a seventeen-
county section of the North Carolina mountains,
and for understanding crucial elements of
the development of the American National
Park system. The project will feature historic

maps, photographs, postcards, government
documents, oral history interviews, and
newspaper clippings. Each historic document
will be assigned geographic coordinates so that
it can be viewed on a map, enabling users to
visualize and analyze the impact of the Blue
Ridge Parkway on the people and landscape
in western North Carolina over both space
and time (See Figure 3). Primary sources will
be drawn from the collections of the UNC-
Chapel Hill University Library, the Blue Ridge
Parkway Headquarters, and the North Carolina
State Archives. These materials are especially
significant in that they document one of North
Carolina’s most popular tourist attractions, but
also in the way that they help illuminate the
way that the Blue Ridge Parkway transformed
the communities through which it passed. In
addition to the digitized primary sources, the
project will include scholarly analyses of aspects
of the development of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
A geospatial format is uniquely appropriate for
considering the history of the Parkway and
its region. As a narrow park corridor pushed
through a long-populated southern Appalachian
landscape, the Parkway rearranged spaces,
repurposed lands, reorganized travel routes,
and opened and closed economic opportunities
through control of road routing, access, and use.
The social conflicts it engendered, therefore,
frequently entailed spatial components – should
the road go here, or there; should it take
more or less land; should this or that
property be favored with direct Parkway access
(or not)? Understanding these aspects of
Parkway history without reference to spatial
relationships on the land is challenging, as the
project’s scholarly adviser, Dr. Anne Mitchell
Whisnant, recognized when publishing her
2006 book,
Super-Scenic Motorway: A Blue
Ridge Parkway History
(UNC Press). Her
experience, both in writing the book and
in delivering numerous public presentations
since its appearance, is that narrative alone
cannot provide the public with the tools
to comprehend past controversies or present
land protection challenges. Using digital and
geospatial technologies to open a new window
on the history of the Parkway and its region
is especially timely considering the approach
of the Parkway’s 75th anniversary in 2010 and
the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in
The collaboration between the library and Dr.
Whisnant has been enhanced by Whisnant’s
engagement in related field of “public history,”
which is history practiced outside the walls
of academia, with and for public audiences.
Based in academia but designed for public
benefit, “Driving through Time” has offered
an exceptional opportunity for involving
undergraduate and graduate students in Dr.
Whisnant’s Introduction to Public History class
in its creation. As a scholarly project being
built through the expertise of a large team
(as nearly all public history undertakings are),
“Driving through Time” has been an ideal
space for students to gain hands-on experience
in doing public history collaboratively, in
real-time, with their instructor. Students are
doing original primary source research in
the university’s special collections, identifying
materials for inclusion in the online exhibit,
developing their own historical narratives,
working with new tools such as wikis and
databases, and contributing to the creation
of metadata. Because the instructor has not
predetermined the final outcome, furthermore,
students are being given ownership over both
their process and their final products and
practicing navigating the unexpected twists,
turns, delights, and disappointments that
historical research always entails.
Figure 3. "Driving throug Time: The Digital
Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina"

Knowles, Anne Kelly
History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are
Changing Historical Scholarship.
Calif.: ESRI Press.
Whisnant, Anne Mitchell
Scenic Motorway: A Blue Ridge Parkway
UNC Press.
Gregory, Ian N.
A place in History:
A Guide to Using GIS in Historical Research.
Price, Kenneth
(2008). 'Electronic Scholarly
A Companion to Digital Literary
Schreibman, Susan, Siemens, Ray
(eds.). Oxford: Blackwell.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (still needs to be added)

Conference website: http://dh2010.cch.kcl.ac.uk/

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None