Category Archives: Research and Teaching Tools

GIS in 1861

Enlightenment philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder claimed that “history is geography set in motion.” An early proponent of a kind of völkisch nationalism, Herder viewed history as a patriotic endeavor, and may not have even used this phrase in his work (I could not find any reference to it prior to 1897. Then again, my 18th-century German is a little rusty). Whatever its origin, I’ve been thinking about this quote a lot lately. My dissertation, which ranges from Nova Scotia to New Orleans, Missouri to England, Hartford to Sierra Leone, is in large part about what I’m calling “the geographies of abolition.” At the same time, I’ve been thinking about incorporating a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) component into the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal.

So it was a neat coincidence to run across Susan Schulten’s insightful blog post about the 1861 map of the Slave Population of the Southern States. Part of a series of posts on the unfolding of the Civil War hosted by the New York Times, Schulten’s short essay shows how this single map became a political, social, and military force. Combining census data, geographical surveys, and statistical analysis, the map is a fantastic early example of GIS technology. Lincoln was fascinated with the map, a high resolution copy of which is available courtesy of the Library of Congress, and poured over it in the waning years of the Civil War.

Despite its special role in the history of the Civil War, the 1861 census map was hardly the first to chart the slave population, as well as the growing sectional consciousness, of the United States. Reynolds’s Political Map of the United States drew on the census of 1850 to compare “the principle statistics of the free and slave states” and was used as a propaganda tool by the nascent Republican Party in the election of 1856. This map also featured general statistics on slave ownership and the disproportionate influence of the Slave Power in government (the slave-holding states were colored dark black, a not-so-subtle commentary on their moral and economic standing).  Earlier still was Lewis’ Free Soil, Slavery, and Territorial Map of the United States, published in 1848 (copy available courtesy of Yale’s Map Department). Again, the slave states are painted a dark black and lengthy statistical analysis is employed to mobilize opinion against the Slave Power. In some ways, the Lewis and Reynolds maps are actually more revealing than the 1861 census map, because they focus attention on the uncertain fate of the western territories (a geographic area larger than both free and slave states combined). Certainly both maps were direct models for the more famous 1861 incarnation.

Schulten, an expert on the history of mapping, detailed the statistical and cartographic antecedents for the 1861 census map in a brilliant article in the journal Civil War History. Oddly, it is not cited or even mentioned in her NY Times post. Perhaps the editors thought it was too “scholarly” for a general audience? (I thought it was a damn good read.) In this longer piece, Schulten argues that the widespread use of statistical maps for policy ends was directly stimulated by the antebellum slavery crisis. And, along the way, she makes a convincing case for the role of mapping systems as both reflections of broader historical shifts and key political-historical forces in their own right. This is an insight worth keeping in mind as we barrel head-on through the GIS revolution.

The Age of Wikipedia

I noticed an interesting blurb on the Chronicle of Higher Education today: Professors Shore Up Wikipedia Entries on Public Policy. The short article explains how a small group of professors are working with Wikipedia experts to contribute high-quality content to the famous open-access encyclopedia. The article points out that professors are incorporating the writing and editing of Wiki articles into their course expectations. Although many (if not most) educators ignore Wikipedia in the classroom, there is a legitimate pedagogical advantage to a more direct approach. As one of the participating professors explained: “It truly tests [students’] ability to argue complex issues articulately in the public domain, as well teaching them how to be critical consumers of information.” But perhaps the most interesting part of the article is that the Wikimedia Foundation is actively supporting and facilitating course integration.

Although skepticism of Wikipedia continues to run high, few can doubt its overwhelming public presence. Not only is it driving other, more traditional, encyclopedias out of business, it is often among the top three sources of information on any topic in a standard Google search. Four years ago, the late Roy Rosenzweig published a brilliant article in the Journal of American History, which posed the question: Can History be Open Source? Rosenzweig highlighted the occasional analytical failures and lopsided coverage of Wikipedia – a byproduct of its voluntarist construction – but also pointed to its tremendous benefits for research and teaching. And I think Rosenzweig and his followers are correct to call for greater interaction and engagement with Wiki-style projects rather than pious denouncement (an all-too-common knee-jerk reaction from established academics).

Around the same time as Rosenzweig’s article, philosopher (and Wikipedia co-founder) Larry Sanger launched Citizendium, a more closed, peer-reviewed encyclopedia that has struggled to keep up with its big brother. This new Wikipedia-Academia partnership might be a good compromise between the two systems. Scholarly, professional input could supplement and augment existing material while not shutting out the hordes of amateur enthusiasts who have made the open-source encyclopedia such a popular success. Whatever the case, it is clear that the Wiki is here to stay. It is not difficult to imagine a Wiki article given the same (or even more) weight as a standard reference entry by the hiring and tenure committees of the future. And, certainly, it will continue to play a role in classroom environments, whether we want it to or not.

Open Access Week

This week is the fourth annual Open Access Week, “an opportunity for the academic and research community to continue to learn about the potential benefits of Open Access, to share what they’ve learned with colleagues, and to help inspire wider participation in helping to make Open Access a new norm in scholarship and research.” The week boasts its own website to coordinate events and contributions from around the globe. Although the site itself is a bit schizophrenic, it features some great material and is well worth the time to explore. A short film from the UK about the absurdly repressive practices that block access to film archives struck me as especially sharp and well-done. How much history (not to mention historical consciousness) are we losing because primary sources are locked away in this fashion?

In the spirit of Open Access Week, I thought I would highlight some great Open Access projects at Yale, a few of which have already been featured on this blog. Yale Open Courses is perhaps most conspicuous, offering free access to a range of high quality lectures (more lectures are available as podcasts on the Yale section of iTunes U). Another popular resource are digitization projects, such as the Historical New Haven Digital Collection, which “contains over 500 images of historical New Haven, as well as over 75 documents containing key census information and other data from New Haven over the past 150 years.” The library’s Digital Collections site offers a centralized space for exploring the profusion of digitized objects and documents spread across the university. Although not hosted at Yale, the university contributes material to UNESCO’s World Digital Library, a relatively new and (hopefully) growing clearinghouse for digital material from around the world. Research gateways, such as the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal and the recently-launched resources module at the Yale Research Initiative on the History of Sexualities, encourage students and researchers from around the world to investigate the vast archival holdings of the University, both analog and digital. And I would be remiss not to mention the Information Society Project at Yale Law School, which sponsors a conference series on “Access to Knowledge” in the digital age.

There is much to be done to promote broader access to and interaction with digital resources. Nevertheless, as the overwhelming international response to Open Access Week demonstrates, this new model of academic practice will be a powerful and important force in our future.

Take a look, it’s in a book…

I want to give a shout-out to Anthologize, a new tool that allows WordPress users (like myself) to organize, edit, and publish blog posts as fully-formed books. A while back, I discussed the increasing significance and sophistication of history blogs. Anthologize now allows historians and other academics to compile, well, anthologies of their best digital scholarship and distribute them in myriad formats. Since even academic blogs contain a wide variety of posts, ranging in quality as well as theme or topic, Anthologize offers a new way to organize and present interesting work that may be scattered or difficult to find online.

Yale professors who make extensive use of blogs in their courses can use Anthologize to generate thematic collections of student work. Other applications include organizing research material, compiling lecture notes or primary sources, producing a collaborative journal or creative work, and generating exhibition books based on a blog of archive or museum collections.

Impressively, Anthologize was developed, coded, and released in just one week by a team of twelve digital humanists. It is still only an alpha release, and many features do not work as well as one would hope. Some might wonder about the ramifications of taking an inherently dynamic format, with outside user comments, hyperlinks, and media files, and rendering it static. With all the advantages of digital interactivity, hyperlinking, mashups, social networking, etc., this transformation might seem a step back to a more “primitive” medium. Still, I think there is much potential here.

Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal

It is my pleasure to announce the launch of the Yale Slavery and Abolition Portal ( Sponsored by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition and the Instructional Technology Group, this site is designed to help researchers and Yale students find primary source material related to slavery and its legacies within the university’s many libraries and galleries. Users can browse a small catalog of noteworthy collections, learn how to search for additional material, or explore a growing list of external resources. The portal is still in its early stages, and we welcome input and suggestions from researchers, students, and staff. Future improvements will include an interactive teaching component, dynamic tags, user-submitted material, and more.

Our objective was to create a simple yet robust interface that would be flexible and expandable for use in both classroom and research environments. In keeping with the project’s collaborative nature, faculty, students, and staff will be able to add, edit, or annotate collections without the need for technical expertise. Although this model is far from perfect, it shows great potential. During the design phase, collaborators were given the option of uploading and curating their own content, while others provided suggestions and advice. Archivists, curators, and librarians from almost a dozen different institutions and departments were crucial partners at all stages of the project.

The portal took about one year to complete, from conception to launch, and I think it offers something more than a run-of-the-mill research guide. In addition to archive and rare book blogs (for example, at the Beinecke and Law Library), I think the Slavery Portal is a unique and dynamic tool that will have a deep impact on both research and teaching.

Full disclosure: I am a project manager and the primary web designer for this portal.