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!

Walt Whitman Archive/ The Walt Whitman “Arsenal”

Kenneth M. Price in his article, “Edition, Project, Database, Archive, Thematic Research Collection: What’s in a Name?” , uses an archive he collaboratively created as an example of how “archives” are much more than what that title or other titles (edition, project, database, archive, thematic research collection, etc.) suggest. His “archive,” the Walt Whitman Archive, encompasses a vast array of Whitman’s material–that which Whitman published in a multitude of mediums as well as Whitman’s manuscripts. As Price states, such a collection is ongoing, it’s not a project with an end, but one that is an ongoing. The process takes many, not just one, contributors which makes the “archive” collaborative. In light of these characteristics of the Walt Whitman Archive–and all “archives” like it–Price suggests uses a different term to describe the collection: an “arsenal.” An arsenal’s emphasis is on the product and the process to get that product. In other words, an arsenal, like the Walt Whitman Archive, is a workshop.

In light of the information in Price’s article I couldn’t help but want to discover and search through the Walt Whitman Archive for this week’s assignment. Here are my thoughts and findings on the archive:

  • Is the purpose of the site/project/archive clearly articulated?

I have never worked with an archive before so upon entering the Walt Whitman Archive I was unsure how to navigate. Luckily, the site is easy to navigate. The title of the site is clearly visible, along with the names of the editors–Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price. (The two editors make this site a collaborative project.) There are various tabs along the left-hand side of the page which indicate the various categories of the site. One has the choice of visiting Whitman’s published works, works written in Whitman’s hand, his life and letters, commentary about Whitman, pictures and sounds of Whitman, other resources, and an “about page.” My only criticism is that this “about” category is placed at the bottom of the list. Ideally, it should be placed at the top so that the scholar, the student, or even a reader of Whitman could learn more about the site and how to navigate it. The reason I suggest this is because that “about” tab has a link to a tour of the site. The tour of the site explains what the user will find in each category and gives examples of the kinds of material that they will find there. This is extremely helpful for a new user to the site as well as a new user to digital archives. This about page also clearly articulates the purpose of the site: to digitize Whitman’s work and writings so the scholar, the student, and the reader may have access to them.

  • Is the site easy to navigate?

Your next question might be, is the site easy to navigate? Is the “tour” necessary to the site or can I figure out the site on my own? My answer would be yes, even without the tour the site is easy to navigate. Each category/tab/section contains information that is relevant to each tab and information that is easily reached. For example, if one clicks on the “Published Works” tab, one will be given options on where to search next. From there, if one chooses to go to “Books, by Whitman” then one will be given more choices. Does the user want to see the Leaves of Grass editions or his other works? Essentially, the site narrows down your search for you, giving you options that are clearly defined for the best search result possible.

  • Who is the primary audience?

The Walt Whitman Archive claims that its use is for the scholar, student and reader. It’s accessibility to students/ teachers and readers is one of its strengths. Because it is accessible to the general reader, the Archive shares the humanities (and the digital humanities) with a much wider audience. The Archive assumes that not only are humanities scholars and students interested in literature, but that the general public is as well.

  • What is being done in this project that cannot be done in print based scholarships?

To answer this question I would like to take a moment to discuss the Leaves of Grass editions that the archive makes available. If I were studying Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and wanted to track the changes in its various editions without using the digital archive, I would have to buy or rent from the library all of the previous editions of the book. If I did that, I would be surrounded by books, flipping through page after page (sounds like tedious work to me!). Instead of doing that, however, I can go to the archive where the editions are all in one place. The archive does the tedious work for me, it gathers the texts together, so all is left for me to do is search through the material and draw my conclusions. The Walt Whitman Archive is also searchable. If you type in a word, the search engine produces a list of links to where that word is used in Whitman’s works. This cannot be done in print based material because print based material is not searchable way that digital material is. If I were to look up a specific word I would have to carefully comb through every page of the material in question. If I were to use the Walt Whitman Archive, the combing is done for me.

  •  How can one use it for one’s research?

An important question remains, how can I use the Walt Whitman Archive? A general reader can use this archive for curiosities sake, or to increase their understanding of Walt Whitman. A scholar or a student can use the archive for the same purposes. Most importantly, they can use it to answer their questions, they can use it for their research. The usefulness of the Walt Whitman Archive is vast. The benefits of the information on the site is vaster. The site allows the user to clearly and easily comb through a vast amount of information that print works do not. The site allows the user to narrow down their research or to answer her questions with more questions. Most importantly, the Walt Whitman Archive allows one access. It allows access to information that might not have been available otherwise. In allowing access, it allows questions (and answers), and contribution to knowledge.

It’s amazing what technology can do for the humanities and digital archiving is one great example among many.