While taking a History of the American West course a few semesters ago I was introduced to GIS through the work of Douglas Seefeldt. He has been the director of many GIS projects, including “Envisaging the West: Thomas Jefferson and the Roots of Lewis and Clark.” That particular project uniquely maps the route Lew and Clark took on their expedition using the letters written between themselves and their advisor, President Thomas Jefferson. The interactive maps allow users to click on a specific letter, and even before the letter document opens on the screen, it will have a blue dot representing where Lewis and Clark were on an early 1800s map of the Louisiana Purchase territory.
In this Digital History course, one project we looked at was “Mapping the Republic of Letters.” While it is not as interactive as some of Douglas Seefeldt’s work, it still has value in the scholarly and public history community. What was learning and the transmission of scholarship like before email and online academic journals? It is hard to picture in today’s world, but modern technology, letter writing was how the world heard about things going on around them. Letters were how ideas were spread and how new scholarship was heard. “Mapping the Republican Letters” looks particularly at the letters and publications of a select group of individuals who they thought best represented the era of the early Republic. These case studies include Votlaire, Galileo, Jogn Locke, and Benjamin Franklin.
When specifically looking at each case study, users can see different types of graphs and tables depicting the countries that the majority of someone’s letters came from or the gender of the person who sent the letter.
There are also bubble-type interactive graphs that depict how many times a certain person has written to another. For example, when mapping Benjamin Franklin’s letters, the chart has a large bubble in the middle with Benjamin Franklin’s name that hyperlinks to digitized versions of almost everything he ever wrote. Surrounding the bubble with Franklin’s name are smaller bubbles with other names written/hyperlinked in them. These bubbles range in size depending on how many letters that person sent to Franklin. The next largest next to Franklin is James Parker who, according to the map, sent one hundred letters to Franklin.
These projects add to the current historical scholarship because it makes historians look at sources in a new way. In previous work, not many people would have cared as much about where the letters came from geographically or what gender the person who sent them was. Today, those key details give just as much, if not more, historic context than the actual words written on the page. By creating these projects, historians are opening up a whole new world of scholarship just waiting to be uncovered. From handwritten letters to emails to GIS maps, history is always changing and so are the ways we document it.