Mapping local history (part 1)

by Emily

This fall, my early stage dissertation research and volunteer work with a neighborhood historical society have converged around mapping. Since I finished the latest draft of a map for a historical society walking tour this morning, the intellectual and social purposes of mapping have been on my mind, but so have the practical challenges of doing it with and for a local history group. This will be the first of multiple posts discussing mapping as a skill archaeologists can use in the service of public history, offered in “real time” from someone trying to learn through experience.

I became involved with this historical society early on in my dissertation research, learning from the officers but also trying to point my research into a direction they would find useful. It is a community volunteer organization run by people living within and near one of my research sites, so it provided an easy way to get involved with the local community and a descendant group. When I learned that an important public planning session, called a charette, was in the works, and that they needed a neighborhood map for a walking tour, I immediately volunteered. I had learned to use GIS in graduate school and was beginning to work on my own maps of the area.

The map and a key to the sites it identifies will be used for walking tours on the morning of the charette, but mapping has also turned into a method of recording and organizing the information for the tour itself. The society’s historian has been conducting tours based on her own research for years, but there is no documentation of what she includes, and the society relies on her memories. The tour map needs to identify all the sites the historian might mention and why she says they are important. It has to include the legacies of 170 years of history as they exist today, but also be easy to read and follow on the ground, and translate into an online resource for potential visitors. An ideal would be something like this map of Arrow Rock, a national historic landmark:

Arrow Rock walking tour map

My goals for mapping as a researcher are slightly different. I am studying the growth of two small communities through neighborhood settlement, architecture, and cemeteries. In the future, I hope to add more archaeological data through geophysics and field survey. This means that I need to create both historic maps of the neighborhoods at different points in time to look for patterns in their physical layout, and contemporary maps showing existing historical and archaeological resources. For my purposes, precision and comprehensiveness are more important than public accessibility, and each map should not mix time periods.

The above example of a historic map with study areas overlaid, from IUPUI, is the sort of thing I would find helpful:

IUPUI campus historical and archaeological survey area

(There are differences, though – in my case the survey area blocks shown would be more like small squares for test pits in residential areas, or one larger rectangle for geophysical cemetery survey. Highlighting entire archival study areas, as in this example, would not be useful for my neighborhood-level research. Still, this is the most representative sample I could find.)


These varying goals require different maps for different purposes, but some of the work I am doing can be used for both, especially collection and digitization of historic maps, comparison of historic and contemporary landscapes, matching specific house sites with census schedules, and documenting some information known through the historian’s oral history research in the 1980s.

In some ways creating the tour map has been more difficult than expected, in part due to the slow nature of collaborative work, and in part due to some technological tools not being quite as helpful as I had anticipated. This has meant that the process has required multiple map drafts for weekly meetings, which has turned it into an iterative activity. I want to keep these posts relatively short and manageable, so in future updates I want to discuss digital tools and how they have helped in collaborative work (or not); why iterative mapping is useful for the process as well as the product; the eventual results of the map and charette; and how we at the historical society envision using, distributing, and adding to maps for public history in the future.

Suggestions or advice from those with experience and inspiration are, as always, most welcome.