Historical GIS (HGIS) is a challenging and demanding discipline. At the best of times, selecting, scanning, geo-referencing, digitizing and vectorizing the right historical material for a project is a long and arduous investment in both time and money. Because of this investment, researchers are motivated to find pre-built and available data suitable for their projects.
As digital scholarship in the humanities and social sciences evolves, it’s clear that finding others who have done the work of digitizing what you want to digitize, or have scanned what you want scanned, is becoming a necessary part of the academic process. Connecting with other scholars doing what you do is probably more important than ever in an age where digitizing material is only one part of a digital project.
Avoiding duplication is extremely important in many respects. Securing public dollars for undertaking digital scholarship is never guaranteed, and these are getting scarce, so ensuring we are efficient in academia by not duplicating effort is a definite necessity.
Connecting with other scholars and forming partnerships are now necessary to most digital scholarship. This was confirmed to me again recently in the presentations and discussions of the two full-day meetings I participated in this past week with historians, geographers and librarians.
At the Jackman Humanities Institute’s Digital Mapping Workshop, “Mapping Sense, Space, and Time” (https://www.humanities.utoronto.ca/event_details/id=2144) on April 28th, in a session called Collaboration Across Boundaries, presentations by Caroline Bruzelius of Duke University and Natalie Rothman at University of Toronto at Scarborough reminded me of why our group applied to SSHRC to put this Historical GIS partnership together.
In her presentation called “Visualizing Venice: The Life and Times of a Digital Collaboration”, Bruzelius listed seven things digital scholarship requires to move forward. A few of the points she made especially resonated with me.
In her first point she argued that scholars need to be trained in a variety of digital tools. While this practically ensures that scholars do not become experts in most of these technologies, it does, however, lead to better scholarship through asking different questions and thinking differently as a result of varied inquiry.
I think it’s important, as we move forward with our partnership, to remember that GIS is only one tool historians and geographers use in telling historical and spatial stories. GIS needs to be combined with other tools to fully understand the subject at hand and to disseminate our analysis and discourse.
Bruzelius also discussed the importance of open and shared databases of what work has been done. Again, this is something we in the Canadian HGIS partnership felt was one of the most important parts of developing a community of HGIS users and practitioners in Canada. By identifying and helping with the discovery of historical spatial data, we are hoping to prevent duplication and help concentrate efforts efficiently.
Professor Rothman echoed the need for open and shared databases in her discussion on the building of the Serai web site in her presentation called “Building the Serai Collaboratory”. Serai is a free and open online collaborative working platform for scholarship on encounters across ethnolinguistic and religious divides in the pre-modern era (before 16th century.) Serai aims to be a one-stop aggregation for cross-border interaction in the pre-modern world.
Another important point Professor Bruzelius made in her discussion was that Humanists need to tell the public better what it is they do and that they should do this by not only publishing in scholarly journals, but by also making their work accessible to the larger public.
In our partnership, it has been clear from the start that we need input from the public. Historical mapping and GIS is no longer the purview of just academics. Demand from the public for historical maps and digital data was made clear to me during the development of the Don Valley Historical Mapping Project (http://maps.library.utoronto.ca/dvhmp) and the Ontario Historical County Maps Project (http://maps.library.utoronto.ca/hgis/countymaps). With the release of both projects we saw a large demand for more information and access to maps and data generated through the project. Not a week goes by without someone asking me for higher resolution images of the Ontario Historical County Maps!
Because of this public desire for access to historical mapping sources and data, we have in our initial Partnership public participation through The Toronto Green Group, the Neptis Foundation, ESRI Canada, and several academic libraries. Several other public organizations, we hope, will be joining us as the Partnership develops.
From a practical point of view, SSHRC has also made it clear that partnerships with the public are important when applying for grants. We shouldn’t take this requirement as a burden, but instead as an opportunity for community groups and individuals to help us develop better projects through their experiences and by learning from their digital information and data demands.
One of the points Nathalie Rothman also made about the Serai collaborations, struck a chord with me as well. Professor Rothman argued that it is difficult to sustain digital projects such as the ones being presented during the JHI workshop for the long-term without the involvement of librarians. This point was also reinforced in another presentation at this event by Professor Steven Bednarski from the University of Waterloo who relies on the work of librarian Zack MacDonald for the digital mapping of his work on climate and landscape change in medieval England.
I think this is where our Partnership has benefitted from a good start. Not only is our group made up of a humanists and social scientists, it is also loaded with a dedicated bunch of librarians from across the country. Academic Map and GIS Librarians, and now also Digital Humanities Librarians as well, tend to be specialists. Not only can they support digital projects through long-term preservation, but they can also, in many cases, contribute to the scholarly undertaking of many projects.
Earlier this April, At the annual meetings of the Ontario Council of University Libraries’ (OCUL) Geo group, I was also reminded of why our group undertook this Partnership Development Project. In this forum, where all GIS and Map librarians from universities meet to discuss common issues across the province, I was struck by the similarity of the discussions we were having to those in the partnership group. Not only do we also struggle with the demands of digital scholarship and project development, but we also struggle with our approaches to making our work visible to the public.
In 2015, the Geo group applied and received funding from OCUL directors to scan and geo-reference 1:25,000 and 1:63,360 federal historical topographic maps of Ontario held in our collections. The project is winding down as most maps have now been processed through work at McMaster University, Ryerson University, the University of Waterloo, Western University, and Carleton University. The interesting part of the discussion during the day surrounding this project was that the group felt it may be a good idea to partner with other organizations in order to develop a data dissemination tool. A tool that would make the data available to not only OCUL schools, but to the rest of the world, especially in light of public demand for historical maps and data.
As well, the group discussed at length the issue of the growing interest in the topic of Research Data Management for spatial data created at Universities. One of the points that was made was that it is difficult to make data, once ingested in data curation systems, discoverable and accessible to the rest of the world. It is a growing concern as all institutions will most likely be building their own repositories using a variety of technologies as demand grows. In building these repositories, will discovery and interoperability be required? We are not sure. If discovery is not at the forefront of requirements in building these repositories, much of the work by researchers and librarians to build datasets could potentially be lost without systems that branch out over a variety of institutions and locations to allow for interaction between search tools.
Part of the reason for our Partnership is to investigate building discovery tools that do speak to one another and that will avoid duplication. ESRI Canada has partnered with us and we are hopeful that, following the two years of this grant, we will be in a position to recommend how we can build data discovery tools that connect to each other for maximum visibility and that will ensure data sustainability and re-use.
It’s reassuring to know that the academic and librarian communities are both having similar discussions on the topics of partnerships and data discovery. It’s also reassuring that the purpose and needs we had identified in building this Canadian HGIS partnership last year, are the same these two communities are expressing.