Mapping New Visions of History With GIS

Patrick Rael
Associate Professor of History Patrick Rael

Story posted March 07, 2005

Historians should have little trouble getting a snapshot of the 2004 presidential election. Maps of red Republican and Democratic blue states were among the most pervasive symbols of the last election cycle, reducing the complexities of America's political divisiveness into broad geographic visuals.

Around the same time, students in Patrick Rael's "The Civil War Era" class were mapping out a different election: Abraham Lincoln's sweep to the White House in 1860. Their visual examination revealed intricate layers of demographic information that has challenged some commonly held beliefs about why Lincoln was popular where he was.

Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology - a software system that allows users to convert data into detailed maps - his students mapped out voting and demographic information from the period to visualize the impact of social forces, such as early industrialization and slavery, on voting behavior.

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"Thanks to the Census Bureau of the U.S. government, which has been recording data on American society since 1790, and to the efforts of modern historical researchers, we can construct our own maps to attempt to explain political (and other) patterns of American life," explains Rael. "What we get are visual images of states that show us where Lincoln was strongest and allow us to draw some conclusions as to why."

The results were unexpected and have cast new light on aspects of antebellum politics, says Rael:

"Before the Civil War, the two-party political system broke down," he notes. "Third parties - like the ultimately successful Republican Party - rose out of the ashes of the defunct Whig Party. Our analysis of GIS data revealed the surprising strength of the anti-immigrant American Party in parts of the country where there were actually few immigrants.

"This demonstrated to us the power of the two-party political system in shaping American politics: When those who had been Whig voters no longer could turn to their traditional party, they simply voted for the party - whatever party - that stood against their old rivals, the Democratic Party."

Once the province of more science-based disciplines, such as geology, geography, and archaeology, GIS use is crossing disciplines.

Rael's project demonstrates the possibilities of GIS-based scholarship and teaching in the humanities, a growing trend among colleges and universities. Once the province of more science-based disciplines, such as geology, geography, and archaeology, GIS is crossing disciplines and is being used in areas such as healthcare, law enforcement, environmental research, sociology, and land planning.

"GIS allows you to 'layer' different types of data, thus allowing many groupings of unrelated spatial information to be plotted on a map," says Rael, who also helped to create "Flight to Freedom," an interactive game and learning tool about pre-Civil War slavery that is on Bowdoin's website.

Rael says the visual approach to history is challenging his students to use quantitative reasoning to think historically. Conversely, the tool also appeals to students who may be more comfortable with numbers and visual displays of knowledge, rather than the usual, textually based approach to history.

"The data don't tell you anything on their own," he says. "Undertanding them requires a process of quantitative reasoning and interpretation. That's not a traditional way of teaching history. The history classroom is not a place where students typically learn new software, but I'm finding that some students who learn GIS in my class use it in other classes."

"If you look at current faculty research and teaching, there's technology going on all across the campus." -- Bowdoin CIO Mitch Davis

Repetition is key to learning GIS, says Jennifer Snow, of Bowdoin's Educational Research and Development (ER&D) program. ER&D is an increasingly important branch of Bowdoin's IT Department that helps faculty members develop a range of technological resources for teaching and scholarship.

"GIS is a cumbersome tool," notes Snow. "It's not the most intuitive program to use. To make sure that the technology doesn't become an impediment, we're training student aides to help faculty and students work with GIS and other educational technologies."

Bowdoin senior Matthew Spooner '05 spent last summer in Snow's lab learning the ins-and-outs of GIS in order to become a technology aide in Rael's Civil War class. "To be honest," he says, "it could be frustrating at times; the learning curve for doing more complicated things is steep."

The work was worth it, however. Spooner, a history/philosophy double-major, says the work "will help me in grad school, even if not directly, because it reinforces the notion that history research can be far more creative and dynamic than sitting behind a stack of old books."

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Matthew Spooner '05 (left) interprets GIS-generated maps with Patrick Rael.

Spooner was one of five Bowdoin students in last summer's training, which was supported by the Gibbons Summer Research Internship Fund, established by John A Gibbons, Jr., a member of the Class of 1964. These fellowships support student-faculty collaborations on educational technology projects.
Bowdoin's technology-based innovations have attracted outside support as well, including grants from: the U.S. Department of Education; The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; The Davis Foundation; The Henry Luce Foundation; and the National Science Foundation.

"I think the interesting part is that we're a small liberal arts college and there's been such a commitment by the administration to provide the resources for faculty and students to do this," says Mitch Davis, Bowdoin's chief information officer. "If you look at current faculty research and teaching, there's technology going on all across the campus. In the future, you'll see an even more tightly integrated environment where technology is just part of everything."

Another example of new humanities-based technology at Bowdoin includes Art History Professor Emeritus Clif Olds' Japanese Garden Project - one of the most visited sites on Bowdoin's web pages. The interactive site lets users explore Japanese gardens in Kyoto, with features such as interactive maps, videos, and extensive scholarship on Japanese gardens.

For his part, Rael credits technology-based learning not only for invigorating the classroom, but for adding new dimensions to his scholarship: "In my book, Black Protest and Black Identity in the Antebellum North, (University of North Carolina Press, 2002), I drew heavily upon census data to investigate the sources of black leadership before the Civil War. GIS will now allow me to present my findings to a broader audience. It offers a way to visualize data and will help me find new patterns in black leadership."


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