Mapping History Online: Quest for the Best Applications

by Emily

After spending two months preparing tour materials for the Eastville Community Historical Society’s charrette, I’m now moving on to transferring those materials online, which means I’m starting to explore mapping applications. Today I’m just making note of what I’ve seen so far, but I would love other thoughts, suggestions, and advice.

And then it will look just like this!

Okay, well, no. But we can dream.

1) Since I’ve been working in ArcGIS so far, my initial experimentation has been with ESRI’s online service. The main attraction for me is simply that I could upload layers straight from my GIS files. However, it’s also interactive for the viewer, since you can turn on and off layers, click individual points for pop-up descriptions, zoom and pan, and change the basemap from satellite to street or topographic. It looks like people may even be able to add layers, which would be a great way to learn more from local or distant experts, but I haven’t used that feature yet so I am not sure if it requires annoying extras (like signing up for an ESRI account, which many visitors would not want to do).

The main problem that I’ve run into is just that the pop-up descriptions come from attribute fields in ArcGIS, which have a 50 character limit. Worse than Twitter! It’s hard to tell any kind of story in that few characters, and what info I’ve given so far is fairly reductionist and boring. I will have to work to improve those and also link them to fuller stories somehow, whether elsewhere on the website, in another medium, or even marketed as the attraction for coming on a tour in person.

Now that you’re warned, my small scale experiment at mapping a couple themes of interest is at

This is the only program I’ve used for this purpose, but I’ve also tried to do mapping for presentations or online exhibits on Google Maps and Viewshare, and I think those would be better for telling different stories about this neighborhood.

2) Viewshare has more helpful and attractive pop-ups in its maps, a lovely interface, and multiple visualization options. However, it requires data in a fairly specific format, i.e. an Excel spreadsheet with latitude & longitude, which is what has kept me from finishing my previous project using Viewshare: editing to include major changes is time consuing and tedious. Also, I had the information in ArcGIS tables already, I have a dissertation to work on, and I’m not sure how well it works for hyper-local mapping like this, so I went with something more customizable.

In the future, though, it might be wonderful for more long-distance mapping, like the voyages of Eastville’s whalers, especially combined with visualizations of demographic or economic information about African American and Native American whalers from Long Island.

3) Google Maps might actually be the best option for reaching visitors just learning about the area, or allowing others to contribute, since it doesn’t require special software. Pretty much everyone who would use an online map knows how to navigate it, it lets you see photos and reviews of nearby places, and it has street view, which would definitely help an online map give you the feeling of a walking tour. If you want to see a fantastic example, check out how Google is showing off UNESCO world heritage sites at the top of the page. It’s an archaeologist’s dream!

Coming back to earth, though (ahahaha!), on a very basic level, I’ve found that navigating between street view and an aerial map while progressing down a street isn’t that easy, it turns out. On an ethical note, I’m wary of pinpointing houses that are currently residential as historic sites on such a public forum without the permission of their owners. Finally, you can’t export nice-looking maps very easily. I’d like to explore the potential of Google Maps for heritage areas more in the future, though – it seems like there is a lot.

Are there others you’ve heard about, or used?