U.Va. Scholars Receive Federal Grant To Develop Tool for Collecting Maps Online

August 02, 2012

Humanities scholars interested in maps and what they say about how their creators viewed the world will soon have a new digital tool at their disposal, courtesy of two University of Virginia scholars.

S. Max Edelson, an associate history professor in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Bill Ferster, a senior scientist at the Curry School of Education, recently received a $297,116 federal grant to develop a program they call "MapScholar."

MapScholar will be Web-based software that allows scholars a standardized way to combine high-resolution images of maps into online collections. This will be a useful tool for scholars working with large sets of maps, which are often challenging to display in books or academic journals, Ferster said.

"Lots of people might have interesting collections of maps, but it's really difficult to put them together in a collection that could be easily explored," said Ferster, who also is affiliated with SHANTI, the Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives at U.Va. "This is especially true if the maps are spread across different physical locations."

The National Endowment for the Humanities grant is among the first the organization has awarded to extend projects seeded by smaller NEH grants. Ferster and Edelson each previously received these seed grants: Ferster for his work developing a program called VisualEyes and Edelson for the "Cartography of American Colonization Database," which explored the best ways to display digital maps.

Edelson's interest in making online maps accessible dovetails with a book project he's working on, "The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America Before Independence."

In the book, scheduled for publication by Harvard University Press in 2014, he analyzes maps the British made of colonial America, including a massive set of surveys commissioned after the Seven Years' War ended in 1763. Such maps are a reflection not only of political geography of colonial America, but of the way the British conceived of North America geographically and politically, he said.

"My book is an attempt to look at the problem of geography and see how Britain tried to describe America as a place as it was trying to reassert its control of it," Edelson said.

He's been working with Ferster on a Web-based collection of the maps featured in the book. The MapScholar project will develop the techniques they are using into a piece of software that scholars can adapt to their own needs.

Many libraries and archives already offer digital reproductions of the maps they house, but standards vary across institutions, Ferster said. MapScholar will offer a way to combine those images into online collections organized by content instead of by physical collection, he said.

"The key goals are to support a system where the maps can be distributed throughout the Web," Ferster said. "Some might be in the Library of Congress, some might be here in Special Collections, but it's no longer necessary that they all sit in a particular archival unit. We want to make it easier for people to collect them and annotate them. If an author wants to then connect their traditional narrative volume to their interactive site, they could associate the pages of a book to particular maps."

The NEH grant funds a three-year project. Ferster said they hope to have an alpha version built in about six months for users to start experimenting with. The second year of the project will likely be spent seeing how people respond to the software. They'll disseminate it in the third year, he said.

The end result will be software that is easily accessible and easy for scholars to use. The program will be open-source and will rely on freely available services, such as Google Docs and Flickr, to host images and content, eliminating the need for extensive local server space.

Edelson said his colleagues in the history department will help test the end result, and that the considerable digital humanities expertise in the University Library and other digital humanities centers make the prospect of undertaking such a project less daunting.

"For faculty who want to jump into the world of digital humanities, Virginia is an extremely good place to be," he said. "You never feel like you're out to sea. There are wonderful people here with an incentive to help you.

"I set out with a very modest goal. I thought I was just learning about the history of cartography, but this project has opened up a new world of digital humanities for me."

– by Rob Seal