Google Maps: 19th Century Concord Digital Archive

I have a confession to make: I’ve never used Google Maps for scholarly purposes.

I’ve used Google Maps to look up directions and, once, before I went to Paris, to “see” the University where I was dorming. Therefore, I’ve never used Google Maps for “scholarly purposes.” Until tonight!

This week in class we will be learning about Google Maps and mapping technology–how to make them, how to use them, how to learn from them, etc. Appropriately, this week’s create assignment is to either play around with Google Maps or explore a successful use of Google Maps. Since I wouldn’t know where to begin in creating my own “map” (can you even create your own Google map? I had no idea…!), I decided to search the internet for some successful uses of the technology. While I was doing so, I thought of The Willa Cather Archive and its successful use of mapping technology. We talked about The Willa Cather Archive’s Geographical Chronology in class a few weeks ago and most (if not all) of us were extremely impressed by its use of the technology. I personally love the feature that allows the user to click on a location and then find Willa Cather’s letters that were sent either to or from that location. I thought the map was easily navigated, too. It was a successful use of the technology because it added new ways of looking at Willa Cather’s life and writing.  Because I was so impressed with their map, I decided to measure the Google Map I studied against it. Meaning that The Willa Cather Archive’s map showed me that a Google Map, when used aside or to support scholarship, should be easily navigated and enlightening in some way.

That being said, I studied The 19th-Century Concord Digital Archive’s “Google Map Overlay.” In order to do so, however, I had to download Google Earth onto my computer. It was easy to download (the archive gave instructions), but it was a bit inconvenient. I would have much rather looked at the map on the archive’s actual website. I’m not sure why the map can’t be viewed on the website though; there might be a reason for this.

The map itself is of Massachusetts, specifically Concord. There is also a map of 1852 Concord over the Google map. In order for the overlay/1852 map to be read, however, the user needs to zoom in extremely close to the overlay map.Once this is done then both maps can be read together. For example, one can find Walden Pond on the overlay map and then see pictures of what the area looks like today. The pictures, especially for Walden Pond, are visually stunning. That being said, all of the pictures of Concord are great. In order to see the picture of a particular place, the user can click on any of the many picture icons on the map. Each icon has a title and is paired with an address. Some even have multiple pictures of one address so the user can get a wider view of the particular area.

Overall, I think the map is successful because it pairs two maps–today’s and one from 1852. Comparing the two allows the user to visualize Concord in 1852 and in 2014. Although I think its use of map is successful, I have two suggestions of how to make the archive more successful.

1. Parts of the overlay/1852 map are hard to read, even if the user zooms in. This takes away from the viewing of the map. Even though I am able to see the pictures of Concord today, I am not able to read some parts the map from 1852. If I were able to see both, I might be able to compare where a particular place is now and where it was in 1852.

2. For a digital humanities student reading the map for class, I am able to appreciate its use of technology. However, I wonder how the creators of the map can show me (and all the other users) the significance of each area. For example, the map in The Willa Cather Archive noted if there was a letter that was sent to or from a particular point on the map. I wonder if something like that can be done on The 19th-Century Concord Digital Archive’s map. Is there a location that exists today that was significant in 1852? If so, why?

I’m intrigued by The Willa Cather Archive, The 19th-Century Concord Digital Archive, and the general use of Google Maps for scholarship and knowledge. Google Maps are just another example of how technology is changing the way we learn and share knowledge.

I’m sure you haven’t heard the last of me on this topic!

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