This semester, Northeastern University’s history department is branching out into new territory: we’re beginning a large-scale digital project that is being implemented across several classes in the department. The goal of the project is to investigate urban and social change in the city of Boston using historical maps. We’re very excited to be partnering with the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library for this project.
This project was originally conceived as an offshoot of a group project from Prof. William Fowler’s America and the Sea course last spring. The original plan was just to think about how the waterfront changed, but it has expanded significantly in response to feedback from faculty in the department. Our focus has become both the topography and the culture of Boston, and how those two intertwine.
Our final product will be an interactive, layered series of historical maps with annotations that help to explore urban and social change across 250 years of Boston’s history. We’ll be building our map series in Leaflet, which we think is a beautiful and flexible medium for such a task.
We made the decision to use historical maps for several reasons. Getting at the topographical changes in the city calls for map comparison. Boston’s topography has changed so substantially in its history that a 1630 map is essentially unrecognizable as the same city. In many senses, modern Boston isn’t even the same land as 1630 Boston. Because the actual land forms have changed so much, it’s impossible to tell the story of Boston without investigating its maps.
Space is an important part of the story of Boston. As the function and prospects of the city change, so does its landform. But Bostonians have never been content to merely take land from the west, as so many other coastal cities have done. Instead, they literally make land in the sea. Over the course of almost four hundred years, Boston has made so much land that its 1630 footprint is essentially unrecognizable in its 2014 footprint.
These drastic topographical changes are inextricably linked to the life of the city. Many of the changes connect explicitly to commercial concerns–the building of new wharves, for instance. So one major goal of the Boston Maps Project is to make obvious these connections between the city’s life and its land.
We’re fortunate to have such a great collection of maps at our disposal. For this semester, we’re going to be using approximately 25 maps, spanning from 1723 to 1899. In the future, we’d like to expand further toward the present, but the Leventhal maps don’t extend far into the 20th century.
Beginning the process
The first step in our process is to get the maps georectified and then annotated. Aligning these historical maps with each other is critical for tracking how the city changes. The work of georectification and annotation is being done this semester by undergraduate and graduate students in seven classes, ranging in subject from public history to Colonial and Revolutionary America. They’re using QGIS to georectify the maps, and then using Omeka as a repository for their annotations.
The georectification process helps the students compare maps and think about how things have developed over time. These georectified maps are the backbone of the project, as they provide the structure for the story of change. Eventually, they’ll provide both the conceptual and the physical structure of the project as well.
But merely georectifying the maps doesn’t really tell us that much about the changes that are going on within the city. To get at those changes, students are identifying features on the maps and writing paragraph-length descriptions of them that describe their purpose and evolution. We hope these annotations will provide context that enriches our understanding of topographical and social change in the city.
Features such as the ones in the black polygons are ones that I’ve encouraged the students to annotate. What is that black box? How has Beacon Hill’s function changed? What in the world is Mount Whoredom? These are all questions that we hope to answer. (Zoom of Richard WIlliams, “A plan of Boston and its environs,” 1775.
Features such as the ones in the black polygons are ones that I’ve encouraged the students to annotate. What is that black box? How has Beacon Hill’s function changed? What in the world is Mount Whoredom? These are all questions that we hope to answer. (Zoom of Richard WIlliams, “A plan of Boston and its environs,” 1775. From the Leventhal Map Center, BPL.)
Thus far, the rollout has been mostly successful. We’ve had a few technical blips along the way (word to the wise Mac user: download all those extra packages before installing QGIS!), but in general the students are excited about beginning the work on this project. I’ve lectured in several of the classes already about the idea of the project and the technical aspects of it, and the students are all beginning to work on their individual pieces.
This project would never have gone forward without encouragement and advice from several people.
Chief encourager and motivator has been Professor Bill Fowler, who has always believed that a large-scale digital project is not only possible, but profitable to implement in undergrad courses. He is learning right along with the students about the tools and technologies that we’re using, and he is our biggest advocate with the BPL and other organizations.
Chief technical adviser, without whom the project would have already completely imploded, is Ben Schmidt. He has written scripts, hashed out schemas, wrangled servers, and done many other tasks that I don’t yet have the technical competency to deal with. In addition, he has provided invaluable advice about best practices for digital projects and the direction the project should go.
All of the staff at the Leventhal Map Center have jumped on board this project with enthusiasm. They’ve met with us, advised us on the best maps to use, and helped us think through how the project can best benefit both NEU and the BPL.
All the faculty who have agreed to implement this project in their courses deserve special thanks as well. The project takes away class time from lectures on their own subject matter, and it certainly adds an element of uncertainty to the course structure. I appreciate their willingness to go out on a limb to make this project happen.
I’m very grateful to all these people—and plenty of others—who have already helped to make the Boston Maps Project a success.
We’re very excited to begin this new project. I hope to write infrequent reports on our progress, and hopefully our final product will be beautiful and useful to scholars, visitors, and residents of the city of Boston.