Historical GIS as a Multilayered Tool for History

This week in Digital History we delved further into spatial history, under the leadership of Don Lafreniere, who works with Historical Geographic Information System (HGIS) to complete research for his PhD. Along with other members of the Geography Department at Western, Don takes data sources and links them to a map, allowing for more analyzation and visualization of the data. This workshop was really interesting as it opened up another tool that can be greatly utilized in examining and understanding past societies. Don and his team have collected different data sources on London and have uploaded the information into HGIS in order to generate trends on a map. This includes census records, fire insurance plans, city directories and school records. Using some of these data sets and following in Don’s lead, we opened the files in ArcGIS and began the process of overlaying a 1912 (revised 1915) fire insurance plan of London on a modern layout of the city.


We each selected a particular house on Talbot Street, and imported the particular fire insurance sheet. I selected #651 Talbot, and imported sheet 29 of the 1912 fire insurance plan onto the ArcGIS map. Through a process called georectification, I was able to assign coordinates to the image, by clicking the intersections of the fire insurance plan to the actual location of the intersection today.This overlaid the fire insurance plan more accurately over the current layout of the city, allowing for building and landscape changes to be seen. The next step was to digitalize #651 Talbot from the fire insurance plan onto the current layout, by using a segment tool in the Editor toolbar and clicking points around the perimeter of the building to create a polygon, and ultimately a new shape file. With this new shape file, I could now join the data sets for the 1881 census and 1915 city directory, to determine who lived in the house and what there occupation was.


In the above image of the final product, on my computer screen you can see the fire insurance plan that is overlaid with the 1915 buildings data (in cyan), the digitalized #651 Talbot (in pink), and the dots that correspond to census data. Now by clicking on a building, one could determine who lived there, what there occupation was, the size of the dwelling and other interesting information that has been uploaded by Don and his team.

Don proved the essential value HGIS is in researching the urban development of the city, through having us pinpoint a particular occupation and see where they lived within the Talbot area. The domestic servant was chosen and by only selecting their occupation in the dataset we could determine where the boarding houses were in the neighbourhood, and what larger houses had domestic servants. This workshop really opened by eyes into how great HGIS is for examining and visualizing societies of the past. As we can easily (well after many hours of research and uploading data) connect the dots into the social make up of a city; determine where different classes lived, which schools different children attended and the changes to a city over time.

Don along with Patrick Dunae, Jason Gilliland and John Lutz, utilized HGIS to conduct a similar study in Victoria, British Columbia, by connecting data sets to maps in order to obtain information on wageworkers in the late nineteenth century. In the article “Dwelling Places and Social Spaces: Revealing the Environments of Urban Workers in Victoria Using Historical GIS,”  they present their findings and stipulate how they were able connect attribute data and spatial history, in order to create a visual analysis tool of the lives of wageworkers in the 1890s. After Victoria became the capital of BC in 1871, and the railway arrived in the 1880s, the city witnessed a growth in the economy, in particular with an influx of wageworkers to the developing industries. As well because of its mild climate, Victoria also offered employment year round, attracting workers from wide areas. Through collecting data from city directories, census records photographs, and other records on the workers, they were able to procure some interesting results, by linking the data through HGIS. They determined the median age of the workers to be 32; that 80% were unmarried; nearly all of them came from out of province, most from the British Isles, and that they lived mostly in cabins and tenements that were really close to there work. This project and article proves the effectiveness of HGIS as a research tool for historians, as it allows for the fostering of different connections and the possibility of bringing forward new questions, that would have previously gone unasked.

Great thanks to Don and his workshop on HGIS for allowing us to utilize their collected data sets on London, I would love to explore this multilayered tool further in order to learn more about the urban development of the city.


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