DIY Digital History Assignment: Intro to Google Maps and Google Earth

Jenny McClain

            In order to increase my familiarity with mapping software and the methods digital historians use to categorize location-based data, I decided to complete the Intro to Google Maps and Google Earth lesson on The Programming Historian’s site. Last semester, at the Alabama State Archives, I got to see how archivists can utilize mapping software to answer important questions that researchers propose about land ownership, land rights, and the stories told by a landscape. Therefore, it seemed like a natural step to do further research into various types of mapping software that can help a public audience easily comprehend data upon a landscape. Prior to completing the Intro to Google Maps and Google Earth lesson, I had extensive experience using the “front end” of Google Maps – that is, using the software that charts my drive around town – but I had no experience with the “back end” of any mapping software. Examining how Google Maps can analyze numerical and written data and then be integrated into various websites was completely foreign to me.

            During the lesson, I uploaded data into Google Maps’ MyMaps feature, which allowed me to automatically or manually plot markers on the map that were significant to the data that I was manipulating. The example set of data with which I was working was a list of Global Fat Suppliers for the United Kingdom, and the information was organized into a two-column list that I uploaded into MyMaps through Excel. I noticed that I could also format my data as a .csv file, which seems to connect seamlessly to our class’s experiences with downloading data from archive sites. Once open-source, archival data is downloaded as a standard .csv file, the Programming Historian’s lesson implies that it would be simple to upload that file into MyMaps, which would allow anyone who accesses your map to process a set of archival data in a more consumable form than a .csv file. Once created, a custom map can be shared via link, which I can see being easily inserted into a WordPress site or another relatively static blog, or downloaded via .KML file, which is compatible with other more advanced GIS software.

            While the Google Maps tutorial focused on the digital historian inputting their own processed data into the MyMaps software, the Google Earth tutorial demonstrated ways to utilize Google’s wide database of historical maps that are in the public domain to conduct research, rather than merely display research. Google Earth software allows historians to pin and stretch historical, scanned maps over a 3-D rendering of the Earth, creating a fuller and more descriptive map to convey data more effectively.  Google Earth software also not only allows for digital historians to search Google’s database of historic maps but also allows for users to upload their own maps, utilizing the extensive Google Earth software to line up historic maps upon their modern-day digital equivalency. .KML files can also be uploaded onto Google Earth, allowing for a traceable, seamless connection between .csv files full of data and a 3-D, fully rendered map.

            I completed the lesson relatively quickly, although I had a few technical difficulties with the .KML files. Ultimately, with more practice and a piece of hardware with more reliability, I could see the Google Maps and Google Earth MyMaps software becoming a staple in the toolbox of any budding public historian, like myself. As I navigated the first steps of the Google Maps tutorial, which involved plotting points on the map and annotating the map to make it comprehensible to a public audience, I wondered if a basic tool like this could play some role in the future of last semester’s continuing research. This mapping software could quickly and easily document sites of Native material culture found throughout Tuscaloosa and could have assisted the mapping group in potentially tracing a path of Indian Removal through Tuscaloosa. In this semester’s CWRGA project, the MyMaps software could potentially plot out locations from where each letter in the collection was sent, opening digital historians’ eyes to patterns among locations regarding similar complaints, education levels, or points of view. Ultimately, I found the Programming Historian’s introductory lesson to Google Earth and Google Maps to be relatively interesting and highly applicable to the public history projects with which I have interacted.






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