Boston Maps Project After One Semester

The major work on the Boston Maps Project for the semester is wrapping up this week. This semester, we ended up with 108 users (about 100 students) who contributed to 19 maps and over 400 annotations on our Omeka site.

Review: The Process

Throughout the semester, I attended an average of three full class periods for each of the five classes that participated heavily in the project. Some of these meetings were scheduled in advance; others were scheduled when I noticed a particular problem across a large number of students in the class.

The initial instruction took two forms. In two classes, I explained the instructions about georectification in a separate class period from my instruction about annotations. In the others, I did all the instruction about both topics in one class period. In general, I noticed that the classes who received instruction on two different occasions struggled less with the technical aspects of both georectification and annotation.

I visited each class at least one more time to provide further clarification. All the classes needed additional help with writing annotations. In each class, the students received a handout that explained the way the students should think about their descriptions, as well as the sources they should consult. It turned out that the handout was not sufficient for students to understand what was expected of them regarding either the research for or the writing of the annotations. (In retrospect, I should have anticipated this.)

Over the course of the semester, I probably received an average of one email per day about the project, with up to 10 emails per day nearer the students’ deadlines. I also met with at least one student a week in my office to work through their struggles with research, writing, or technical issues. It was actually gratifying to see the number of students who wanted my input and assistance—ironically, in this semester, when I was rarely in the classroom, I had more person-to-person interaction with students than I’ve ever had before.


Most of the students did a great job with the georectification, with very little additional instruction from  me. Though I  met with 6 or 7 of the students doing the map, only a few of those students required any real assistance—most met with me merely to reassure themselves that they were doing a good job. (They were.) When I asked two classes about their biggest challenge with the project, each group’s georectifier said that that task was their biggest challenge. However, several of them also mentioned that the georectification was one of the more rewarding aspects of the project.

One group did their georectification collectively: they projected QGIS onto a large screen and then all of them suggested points to use for the georeferencing. Their map was one of the more unusually aligned maps to begin with, but they did an extremely good job. The students of that group also told me that once they got the hang of finding points of commonality, the georectification became quite fun. In future georectification assignments, I may suggest this way of doing the work, since it seems to have been highly successful.


The annotations proved somewhat more problematic for many students (though the problems were still relatively minor). The students experienced the joys and frustrations of both freedom and constraint. Each group got to pick the features they wanted to annotate from the maps I gave them. At first, I was concerned that allowing the students to pick their own annotations might lead to uneven distribution of annotations, or features not being annotated that needed to be, but in general the annotations seem to be very evenly distributed, and of course each map has more features that could be annotated than any one group could do in a semester. So each of these maps could easily be assigned to another class in a subsequent semester and still have plenty of features to annotate.

Boston Common, with Powder House and Liberty Tree, 1774
Boston Common, with Powder House and Liberty Tree, 1774—an example of a Boston landmark whose function has changed since 1774

Some features are still common Boston landmarks, such as the Boston Common, and were easily identified (and were annotated in almost every group). However, some features on the maps were more difficult—for instance, any one of the dozen of wharves present in the 1860s, or temporary encampments built by the British during the occupation of Boston in the 1770s. Additionally, some of the features have histories that are easy to trace in the 20th century but much more difficult to trace into the 19th or 18th century. Several students picked features on their map that they had to abandon because they weren’t able to find any research about them. Doing all that searching only to have to abandon the quest was intensely frustrating for some (but it is something every historian deals with at some point, I think).

Students told me that research was a big challenge for them. They were required to cite a secondary source and a primary source that they consulted to write their descriptions. Almost all of the students mentioned that finding primary sources was a struggle. Though a few students struggled to the point of ineffectiveness, most rose to the challenge and found really great information about parts of Boston that I didn’t even notice on their maps, much less know anything about.

Sandemanian Meeting House, built 1769
Sandemanian Meeting House, built 1769—a feature I did not even notice on the map (but a student did)

In particular, students came to the realization that doing research about a feature meant more than merely finding a source that acknowledged its existence. Their research had to dig much deeper, to find out about the feature’s function not only at some point in its history, but at a particular point (in the time period around their map). In addition, some of the students mentioned that they found sources with conflicting information about the feature and had to decide which sources were right. They also had to recognize that things move: many Boston landmarks have not always been where they are today. Churches came up quite frequently as features that appear in a different place on the historical maps than their present location.

Review: The Product

For one semester’s worth of work, I am very proud of what the students accomplished. We made a very good start! Though the end product, I’m certain, is going to be very interesting and informative, the product of the semester, or rather the goal, was something less tangible. Students have provided feedback to me through private emails, as well as through class presentations of their group’s work, and several themes have arisen out of the comments I’ve received.

First, students have been (mostly unwittingly) learning the craft of a historian. Learning to dig deeper to find the piece of information you know is out there; investigating primary sources from municipal and state records to newspapers to personal diaries of Bostonians; reading maps; and sifting through evidence to decide which is the right information: All of these skills are part of the historian’s craft. Writing annotations about several different parts of Boston forced the students to practice all of these skills differently from how one might research for a larger paper about any of these topics–in some ways, an easier task, but in many ways, a harder. A research tool that was profitable for Trinity Church might have nothing for the Columbian Museum; primary sources about Faneuil Hall are so numerous that sifting through them is a chore, but finding primary sources about S.G. Bowdlear and Co. Flour required some persistence (including investigating some documents from the BPL’s rare books collection).

Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Co., est. 1855
Grover and Baker Sewing Machine Co., est. 1855—a relatively obscure business that a student annotated

Second, students learned the rudiments of spatial thinking. Many students told me that they had never really thought about maps of Boston as being sources of historical information or analysis. Georectification forced them to realize that maps are not authoritative (just looking at how mapmakers aligned their maps caused some students to question how maps were created). But doing annotations about different places on their maps also made some students aware of the relative proximity (or distance) of various connected places within the city, from simple realizations such as why the Custom House had to be close to the wharves, to how the introduction of railroads to the city changed the way the mental health asylum functioned (and eventually forced the asylum out to the suburbs to get away from the ruckus caused by the trains).

Next Steps

There’s so much more to do on the project. We need to start building out the application to effectively use all these great maps and annotations. Some of the annotations need to be cleaned up a little, and decisions need to be made about how to deal with many annotations of the same feature that say essentially the same thing. The next major interpretive step is to research and write about the maps themselves–who were the mapmakers, what was the map’s purpose, how did the maps betray their own time?

If we implement this same procedure again in undergraduate classes in order to get more maps into our series, I’ve learned a few things about what needs to change.

1. I’ll insist on having at least two full class periods for the introduction of the project. This will allow me to address some of the problems we experienced this semester up front rather than trying to put out fires later.

2. I’ll ask that professors not assign the due date as the last day or week of the semester, so students have a chance to revise their work if necessary.

3. I’ll focus more on teaching students how to do primary-source research, including showing them online archives and how to use them (rather than primarily just telling them), and suggesting that they also go the extra mile to actually visit some archives in the area. I’ll also try to enlist the help of some local archivists to make the process of primary-source research less opaque.

Overall, I’m very pleased by how the project went this semester, and I’m looking forward to continuing the work. Right now it seems that the more work we’ve done, the more work remains. Thankfully, it looks like circumstances have aligned so that I’ll be able to continue putting significant time and energy into the project next semester and in spring 2015, as the project becomes an official NULab project. Hopefully this change means more people across more disciplines will get the chance to work on the project.


One response to “Boston Maps Project After One Semester”

  1. Hi Abby! This is a really interesting pedagogical project. I love your third objective in the “Next Steps” section. As a reference librarian I think it’s imperative that students comprehend primary-source research and feel comfortable exploring physical archives. Best of luck!!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *