Introducing the Boston Maps Project

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.

Why maps?

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.

Space Matters

[Originally posted to the course blog for Doing Digital Humanities, Prof. Ryan Cordell.]

In addition to our reading for class about mapping, several blog posts about mapping and GIS have been in my RSS feed reader this week. All these have combined to make me think more critically about space and its representations in historical research and presentation.

As Jo Guldi points out, the spatial turn in history occurred as early as the modern study of history. It seems almost self-evident that historical analysis has to include a discussion of space, at least to historians now. The history of people is inextricably linked to the history of those people’s space. And as historians focused more on national history, space obviously had to be considered. Guldi says, “Telling a history of nation rather than family required the writers to develop tools for privileging landscape over the portrait,” especially since the history of nations is almost always a history of their definitions of, representations of, and pursuit of geographical space.

(Imagined) Actual Space

Despite so much focus on spaces and maps, our spatial sense, both as historians and as people in general, is often deeply flawed. (I speak for myself here, but also more generally.) Imagined space, based on perceived importance, is often conflated with actual, physical space. Kelly Johnston demonstrates this principle with an amusing map of Texas, but he also draws attention to a less tongue-in-cheek blindness of many Americans to exactly how large other parts of the world are. I can’t speak for other people in the world, but it wouldn’t surprise me if people all over the world inflate their own geography’s size and importance.

Using Space in History

As Richard White points out, many historians share that general blindness to how space relates to the study of history. But it’s also hard to use simple space, or simple geography, to demonstrate a historical point. For instance, talking about how railroads expanded across the United States is not simply a geographical discussion, but also a social, political, and labor question. Geography alone does not usually make something historically interesting (though there are certainly examples to the contrary).

White discusses how space is more than just a geographical construct by relating it to the work of Henri Lefebvre:

Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space introduced a generation of historians to the idea that space is neither simply natural geography nor an empty container filled by history. It is rather something that human beings produce over time. Spatial relations shift and change. Space is itself historical. Lefebvre, who was a philosopher and not a geographer, organized his own work around three forms of space that he called spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space.

I think these distinctions about spatial practice (how space is used), representations of space (maps, architectural renderings, etc.), and representational space (“an attempt to conceive in order to shape what is lived and perceived” such as setting aside land for national parks in order to shape the idea of wilderness as important space?) are helpful if only for thinking through why space matters.

I don’t think most historians purposefully ignore space. More and more are adopting the spatial turn, for sure. But what sometimes happens is that previous historians’ assumptions about space are accepted and propagated without much thought about how those representations affect the story.

An example from my own research: As I was preparing for a lecture on the Barbary Wars, I suddenly realized that I had no idea why the United States was even interested in protecting their right to space in the Mediterranean Sea. So I went searching in all my books about the Barbary Wars, about early American trade, about naval history more generally…and I came up completely empty. Not one book I found mentioned why the United States was even in the Mediterranean at all. We all assume that it’s because of trade. But there are no numbers on how big of a trade it was. There are stories about commercial vessels being taken by the Barbary corsairs, of course, but no mention of what they were doing in the Mediterranean or what percentage of the volume of trade they represented. To me, this is a problem (one I intend to rectify as soon as possible, perhaps this summer). It’s not that the assumptions are wrong: they’re probably right. It’s that historians don’t account for American presence in that space in any meaningful way. (There probably are books out there that address this, but I haven’t seen them.)

How does GIS help?

It’s very easy to look at a lot of quantitative geographical data and draw broad conclusions from the data without pinning those data points to an actual map. Neither, in some cases, is there a need for such precision in data use. And before the availability of GIS, plotting large data sets onto maps was simply impractical–trying to account for hundreds of points of latitude/longitude, for example, might turn a simple hypothesis test into a life’s work!

But GIS enables the historian to easily make the connections between the specific data points and the larger assumptions. Mapping census data onto actual county maps may reveal some geographical or social features not obvious in the data charts. Or sometimes GIS can reveal a discrepancy between the historical facts and the historical assumptions. Such is the case in the research of my colleague John Dixon at Harvard, whose research involved using GIS to plot locations of commercial vessels on their routes using data from their ship’s logs. His research has demonstrated that the assumption of many historians, the existence of very narrow shipping lanes in the Atlantic Ocean, is simply not true, since ships actually traversed almost all of the northern Atlantic. This data has been available for decades, but GIS has allowed the data to confront the assumptions and, in this case, prove them mostly false.

Seth Long also suggests that digital maps (of one sort or another) can be used to mashup spatial and non-spatial data in a way that physical paper maps can’t. He says:

Too often, digital maps are treated like paper maps: they select one or two elements and then deflect everything else, which completely undermines the utility of these interfaces and the plethora of data available online. Mapping socio-economic factors shows us one thing; mapping presidential voting patterns shows us another; mapping proposition voting shows us something else. These just scratch the surface. Individually, digital maps are valuable, but together, they construct a much richer and more robust view of a place than they do individually.

These broader themes seem a good reason to start thinking about GIS.

Caveat Emptor

Despite the grand abilities of GIS, I still have a few concerns before buying in completely. GIS isn’t a panacea for all mapping problems; after all, at the end of the day, as J.B. Hartley said, “The map is not the territory.” Maps can’t represent everything about the spaces they depict. And even GIS, with its seeming objectivity, can’t create objective maps.

Maps are political, even GIS maps. Some critics of GIS have suggested that it stems from a positivist idea of objectivity (Bodenhammer 19), and that criticism seems relevant. More importantly, though, GIS maps are built on a Western spatial perspective, a scientific perspective. Non-Western mapping (or non-European) doesn’t necessarily privilege science as a measure of space. And who’s to say that Westerners are right and others aren’t? Why should science be the standard way of representing space, when in many instances it isn’t the standard way people actually consider it?

In addition, GIS’s impact is based on precision, or at least the illusion of precision. Mapping precise latitude and longitude can be very helpful, but the map is only as good as the data. In some instances, the data is sketchy or flat-out wrong. This is a problem my colleague John Dixon is working through: ship captains didn’t always record in their logs the position they believed themselves to be at. In addition, calculating longitude without a chronometer is a matter of guesswork at best. So these seemingly precise plot points are not that precise after all. And why is the data flawed? Perhaps it’s because those ship captains privileged a different conception of space.

There’s a lot more to say about GIS, I think–a lot more ramifications for how we research and how we think through our own assumptions, both about the historical record and about the tools we’re using to discover that record. In the meantime, this HASTAC forum, just posted, deals with some of these questions about mapping, in case you’re interested. It might be a good chance to see how other scholars approach these unique ways of looking at space.