Digital mapping uncovers hidden histories

Men in an Alberta field wear masks during the Spanish flu, Fall 1918, Canada. (LAC MIKAN 3194045)

From cellars and attics to forgotten collections, the past is often at our fingertips, waiting to be shared.

Researchers at the Huron Community History Centre are doing just that. Partnering with Western Libraries, they have created the Collaborative Mapping Projects site, which compiles a collection of digital maps exploring community histories.

The site is a collaborative venture that reflects the nature of community history. It’s about bringing together academics, public historians and communities to share in the collective production of history.

“History is about interpretation,” said Thomas Peace, Huron University College history professor and co-director of the Huron Community History Centre. “People often remember, understand and interpret the past differently based on the communities within which they live. Those diverse histories risk being lost when they aren’t shared; that’s a loss to us all.”

map of hidden histories sites

The Hidden Histories map allows anyone with a computer to find, and add, locations of historical significance.

As part of this launch, the centre created the Hidden Histories in Southwestern Ontario map. Using geographic information systems (GIS) software available through Western Libraries, the map allows anyone with a computer to not only visit under-recognized locations of historic significance, but also add locations they think are significant.

Other maps on the site include the Loyalist Migrations Project, another community driven mapping project plotting the journeys of thousands of Loyalists following the American Revolution; maps from the Black Press in Canada Project; a 1918 Flu Pandemic Story Map, which explores the legacy and impact of the 1918 flu pandemic on Canadians; and a Google Mapof publishing houses that printed books in Anishinaabemowin or Kanien’keha:ka in the 19th century.

“GIS technology and open data enable people to see through the eyes of others and begin to understand the meaning of the place in which they live,”  Peace said.

Loyalist migration map

A map of Loyalist migration following the US War of Independence.

“It helps us understand our neighbours, and that’s why community history is so important.”

A key feature of the site, and the projects it hosts, is an emphasis on community engagement and interaction. “If we really want to think about how the past can create meaning and change society, we need to make history accessible and bring it to people’s attention – people who otherwise wouldn’t know about it,” said Peace.

Western Libraries’ intern Nolan Frew built the site, and most of the mapping projects were created by students.

“It’s a great chance to apply what I’m learning in class,” Frew said. I’m excited about the potential of online GIS and open data sites like this, and I’m excited to help tell the remarkable stories of the Huron Community History Centre.”

“The partnership with Western Libraries has been amazing. None of this would have been possible without Liz Sutherland [Western Libraries’ GIS Specialist],” Peace added.

For Western Libraries and the Huron Community History Centre, the site is an opportunity to show the potential of open data sites and community history.

“With this open data and ArcGIS technology, it’s easier to show the evidence of the past,” Peace said. “We can begin to see the patterns across time and space. Perhaps this will tell us something about the hidden histories of Southwestern Ontario.”