Look what I can do: HGIS


For those of you reading this and have no idea what HGIS is, I didn’t really know either until today. I knew that the acronym stood for Historical Geographic Information Systems and I knew it had to do with mapping the past, but I didn’t realize how difficult yet interesting it would be!

In my Digital History class we participated in a workshop by Don Lafreniere, who provided us with a quick yet in-depth overview of HGIS and how it can aid in historical research. He guided us through a hands-on exercise using the program ArcGIS.  Lafreniere led us through a set of VERY well laid out instructions that were incredibly helpful. If you need an instructional guide created, he is your man! The point of the exercise was to acquaint us with the different capabilities of HGIS and allow us to get somewhat familiar with a very new program.

I was incredibly skeptical at first, especially since I had not had the best of luck with the MapTiler application last week. My skepticism soon waned as Lafreniere explained just how this type of program could aid in historical research. “A geographical information system (gis) allows researchers to methodically and efficiently organize and analyze spatially referenced data, and to identify and visualize spatial patterns and processes” (Dwelling Places and Social Spaces: Revealing the Environments of Urban Workers in Victoria Using Historical giS by Patrick A. Dunae, Donald J. Lafreniere,  Jason A. Gilliland, and John S. Lutz).

This type of digital history is so interesting and there is so much that can be done. HGIS is time-consuming, but once you have a workable base in your system, it seems as though it would be rather straight forward to change the parameters and look for different trends.

Lafreniere suggested that you can use Excel spreadsheets and import them into the program to set the social environment of the particular location during various points in time. This can be done using the information found in census data and city directories which would provide names, occupations, ethnic and religious backgrounds. This information would allow the researcher to map for changes in occupations in a particular location in an industrialized city. Or how religious practice has changed or stayed the same in areas surrounding places of worship in a particular town. This is very helpful for visual learners like myself, because you can actually see spatially how places and areas have changed or have not changed overtime. There are exponential possibilities for the use of the data, it is almost a bit ridiculous.


Even though my skills do not lie in the digital world, I believe that if I could watch some instructional videos, listen to Don Lafreniere talk for another 10 hours, and play around with ArcGIS, eventually I would get the hang of the program. Once I am able to use this type of analysis for my own work, I most definitely will. It may just take a little bit of practice.


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