Why Mapping Your History Matters?

What do maps do best and why are they important in history projects?  How can you Map your history and how will this process help you make new connections and gain new insights…for your family, social, local or special interest history project. Here we discuss the key points as to why mapping your history is a significant step forward, a useful research capability and increases the likelihood of making new connections and revealing new patterns in your historical data, not replacing family trees but supplementing and helping to document and reference incomplete records.

  •  What do Maps Do Best: Maps visualise complex geographical and spatial data, they help you navigate, they help you get an overview of where you are currently and graphically represent a wide range of options for getting to your destination via a route to be selected or even in choosing and deciding your destination.
  • Traditionally when we think about history the first thought is dates, sequence and chronology, but that is only one dimension of history and it is relatively linear and therefore limiting on it’s own. If we can extend the historical date based information so that we can organise and better understand the data we have and even the data we don’t then then will it’s value and usefulness increase?
  • Maps help us orientate ourselves, to the absolute position of a particular point on the the earth, fixed by longitude and latitude, with the relatively stable magnetic north,  being our fixed point of reference for orientation from anywhere in the world. Whilst magnetic north may have varied over time, it is the best near constant point for orientating and understanding location that we currently have.
  • How can Maps better inform, communicate and facilitate our research into our history projects? We are thinking of maps as a visualisation of our history, getting away from a wall of text, enabling a large amount of data to be tracked and pinpointed, with the added potential dimensions of movement and proximity, but more of that later. Maps in history are key artefacts in defining the world that was but overlaying and correlating old maps with the contemporary was very difficult and tedious by manual paper and pen. Now we all use interactive maps in Google Bing and Wikipedia, to name but a few just to find our way around, often using GPS in the car and on our smartphones (Iphone, Blackberry,Android etc… ) So how can we harness that basic technology and why will it be helpful in exploring and investigating your history project?

Family history for a genealogical project as an example of Mapping Your History

Family History is often a detective process, it is part of the fun, piecing together a complex jigsaw (another way of visualising data) is essentially a fragmentary process. Most of us research and develop our family history projects over a protracted period of time. We have to grab time when we can,  pick-up the pieces and try and resolve puzzles, conundrums that take us to the next step whilst still keeping in our minds-eye the big picture.

Data presents itself often in snippets, a fact, a series of records, a document, a photograph, an object or piece of ephemera, a batch of records and from this we want to stitch together a coherent picture or vision of our family’s history. The data accumulates over time and needs organising ,cataloguing and often is difficult to precisely date…very quickly there can be a lot of information in your archive boxes but how can you reference it and keep an index of where you are at and how it might be connected? The records are often incomplete, some are missing damaged or you don’t even know if they exist, there can be a lot of gaps and you can be more or less certain that beyond say the last 50 years, it will get harder and harder to create a complete timeline.

But if we can start to plot not only date and sequence and lineage but place and immediately glimpse the relationships between the points we can plot on a map this provides a powerful visual means of representing our data. Think of the map as a visual interface and index of your data, we are not talking about instead of a family tree but as an additional means of representing your data. Once you start to look at different family trees and trying to consider whether they are connected or not, then the family tree itself as a data index becomes difficult to correlate with one another. This is where the visual approach of mapping as well as using family trees can be a great help.


How and Why Mapping Your History can Help…

  • Maps help us navigate between places, in history we are looking to navigate through our data in time and space and the visual representation can simplify and make more manageable and accessible the complex data we accrue.
  • Maps give us a visually driven birds-eye view of our data, interactive maps enable us to zoom in and out on demand to see a simplified or detailed view of the map and data points plotted or pinpointed on it.
  • Maps and Family History Example Its vital to be able to work beyond a single family tree and be able to look at your data in a non-linear form to look for connections and patterns that might not be apparent from the linear tree format.
    • Ina large family tree or series of trees the life events and records we may/may not have are vast.
    • The family tree file format  (GEDCOM) that enables life events and details to be encoded within the file format gives an idea of the scope of the data that can exist for any individual and is multiplied for each individual within that tree
    • The GEDCOM codes supporting the life history format supported by most family trees systems and software programs shows how complicated this can become(see GEDCOM life events for family history and data tags supported )for instance.
    • When you have a number of people to track in your project, then maps become invaluable in being able to see another dimension that can reveal much about the relationships between place and individuals and the communities in which they lived worked and played.
    • Census data is the perfect example, if you could plot your family groups and their characteristics against the wider census of the overall population nationally regionally and within the specific areas where your families lived what would that tell you?
    • Wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to perform some high level analysis of your subjects and their families against the wider population in which they lived…
  • Maps provide an alternative way of visualising complex data sets that are simply not possible with just a  family tree structure but it is more fundamental than that, more than just a  means of simplifying and organising data

Why are maps important in History projects?

To summarise why we believe maps and the process of mapping itself is an important part of researching our history projects:

  • Maps visualise apparently disparate and complex data, computer maps enable us to zoom in and out on demand
  • Mapping helps us research and consider new connections using proximity as an additional factor in our analysis by identifying data not only by date but by relative place, position and proximity between points of interest and potential connections. Maps help us analyse and reveal new patterns in the data and discover a deeper and wider frame of reference to understanding our history projects.
  • Maps help us relate the changes in place over time and the relevance of changes to our history subject: we can relate the geography to the history of place, work, home and family life and what the significance of that geography might be at a very granular and also at an aggregated level. Even basic cluster analysis can be powerful in seeing visually the proximity and relationships between our data.
  • Maps help us visualise movement and migration: we can see where our family came from, lived worked and played and where they moved to, we can zoom out and see where our family groups lived and where and when they migrated.
  • Ability to overlay and link old and new data together both text numbers and other rich media (video pictures and more) Online maps provide the ability to place contextual links at our mapped points of interest, that reference related data sets.  We can readily and visually identify proximate and potentially significant data from additional sources that may shed light on our specific data. Contextual links and overlaying of different data help us to discover not only what happened  ‘when’ but where, to set a sense of place.
  • Online Maps enable us to readily switch and explore different maps and views instantly: the topography and terrain, the roads and today even virtually stroll stroll along the same roads with streetview. All enabled by now standard GPS technology. Previously the ability to manually map and correlate complex data was limited by the tedious manual work it required and the memory needed to cross reference each of the source data-sets often written on different and unrelated documents…
  • The advent of the GPS is another key element in why GIS (geographic information systems) and maps go hand in glove with history, we can overlay historic maps and with georeferencing actually see them on top of contemporary maps using precise absolute land and sea references checked and verified with the aid of a GPS.
  • Mapping your history is a reality with GPS and online mapping available on your laptop or smartphone there is no reason not to look to harness some mapping capability if you really want to move and then leap forward with your history project. You could start now…in forthcoming posts in Intriguing Resources we will be sharing what we have discovered and how you can deploy the tools tips and techniques available.


How will this process help you make new connections and gain new insights?

  • Provide via the maps a visual metaphor by which to navigate through your data
  • Enables new patterns to emerge and gaps and spaces to be better understood
  • It provides a more lateral medium in which to consider and analyse what was the cause and effect over time
  • It introduces another dimension into our analysis of our data proximity, what was nearby, what palces events and other historical and geographic factors influenced events
  • It breaks out of the shackles of a largely linear family tree format,
  • Creates a new and visual interface through which we can share and  intuitvely navigate through the snippets of data, annotated and supplemented with an ever more informed narrative of the bigger picture
  • There is much more that can be achieved, but using standard web technology and a little imagination we believe there is great potential.


Mapping Your History Matters: you can get started now…

Maps and mapping your history is a great step forward, so how can you take the first steps. Why not consider taking a look and a test drive of our free historical research service Intriguing History. We are building and mapping an ongoing series of geocoded historical references with the specific intent to seek connections and historical context that will be helpful to those of us engaged in family, genealogical, social ,local and special interest history projects.

Intriguing History , Resources and Connections are designed and developed to meet the needs of our history projects, so we can take forward our family trees and put flesh and bones on the story and expand our understanding of who we think we are and where we came from! In that process we have become engaged in wider projects and realised the potential to  create and share solutions with others who wish to embark or are already implementing similar projects. With a helping hand from our IT experience we aim to bring hassle free solutions for you and your history project.

There is some fabulous academic work going on , in particular we are inspired by subsequently discovering ont eh web,the work being pioneered in Spatial History at Stanford University but our ambitions and focus is on placing tools at your fingertips that can be used using standard laptop, tablet  and smartphone technology on your history projects for you your family and friends.


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