Environmental history? There’s a map for that

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by Jim Clifford, Josh MacFadyen, and Daniel Macfarlane

You’ve probably noticed that more scholars than ever are starting to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and consider geospatial sources in their research. Some have called it “the spatial turn” in history, and the launch of a new anthology edited by Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin announces its arrival in the Canadian historical profession. University librarians, such as Fortin, have been diligently explaining the changing techniques of GIS to academics, but when you go looking for straightforward guides to the most basic mapping tasks used by historians you might be discouraged. Well, take heart!

You may remember a few past blog posts on The Otter about learning how to use digital mapping technology. These early efforts have grown into a much larger project, and together with NiCHE we have built a tutorial-based open access textbook, modeled on the Programming Historian, for historical scholars and digital humanists. It is designed to teach practical digital mapping and GIS skills that are immediately useful to real research needs. We have released four introductory lessons to HGIS methods using open source or free platforms like Google Maps and QGIS, and we have more advanced lessons in the works.

NiCHE had already supported the very successful Programming Historian, and we proposed that with NiCHE support (thank you NiCHE!) that we do a sort of “how to” to show historians how to get into digital mapping and how to find spatial data. We hoped this would also be included in the Programming Historian 2.

We began by turning our assorted blog posts on entry-level Geographic Information Systems (GIS) into something more formal and coherent. As we all live in different cities, we held Skype meetings and sent many emails back and forth. Then we actually got together in person for a few days of concentrated writing and brainstorming at Western University’s great digital lab this past February. We laid the basis for 4 lessons, which we then cooperatively improved from our respective locations in the following months. At that point we submitted these first lessons to the Programming Historian’s peer-review process and revised the lessons based on feedback from two blind reviewers. With the whole process almost complete at the end of summer, QGIS released a major update, version 2.0, and forced us to rework three of the lessons.

We are pleased to announce the release of this WordPress website, which is titled The Geospatial Historian (click here to check it out).

Because the Programming Historian uses open source data so that users aren’t required to buy expensive software, our initial exercises are based on QGIS, which is free open source software. But we are planning to add additional lessons on the website that use proprietary software like ArcGIS. We also have offers for lessons in basic cartography and working with geospatial data in the statistical programming language R.

We’ve used a very practical, step-by-step format employing screenshots and interactive exercises (see accompanying screen shots below). And the lessons build on each other, as maps created in one lesson are used as examples in following lessons, progressively teaching more advanced skills.


The first lesson aims to ease academics into using digital mapping by using Google Maps and Google Earth. Lesson two details how to install QGIS and start using and understanding layers. Lesson three shows you how to create new vector layers and use shapefiles. Lesson four focuses on georeferencing: a series of control points to give a two-dimensional object like a paper map the real world coordinates it needs to align with the three-dimensional features of the earth in GIS software.



We also have a section on “Finding Spatial Data” which we hope will be useful since finding data is one of the biggest challenges when getting started in GIS mapping.


We are looking for people to serve as guinea pigs and try these lessons out, look for mistakes, and give suggestions on how to improve them. Furthermore, we are looking to move into more of an editor role, where other contributors add more lessons – and if you’re so inclined, let us know!

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I am an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Prince Edward Island where I teach in the Applied Communication, Leadership & Culture Program in the Faculty of Arts. My research focuses on the history of biomass energy and agriculture. From 2012-2014 I was the NiCHE project coordinator, and I served on the NiCHE editorial board until 2018.

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