Digital Humanities Maps

Historically, maps were 2D, printed, sometimes wildly inaccurate representations of space. Today, maps can still be wildly inaccurate, but digital tools provide a way to apply more data to a spatial representation. However, displaying data on a map is not a completely new idea. W.E.B. DuBois’ 1899 sociological research study “The Philadelphia Negro” was one of the first to present data in a visual format, both in map form and other forms.

map of the seventh ward of philadelphia, each household is drawn on the map and represented by a color corresponding to class standing

The colors on the map indicate the class standing of each household.

Digital maps can add an interesting, spatial dimension to your humanities or social science research. People respond well to visuals, and maps provide a way to display a visual that corresponds to real-life space. Today we’ll highlight some DH mapping projects, and point to some resources to create your own map!

(If you are interested in DH maps, attend our Mapping in the Humanities workshop next week!)

Sources of Digital Maps

Some sources of historical maps, like the ones below, openly provide access to georeferenced maps. “Georeferencing,” also called “georectifying,” is the process of aligning historical maps to precisely match a modern-day map. Completing this process allows historical maps to be used in digital tools, like GIS software. Think of it like taking an image of a map, and assigning latitude/longitude pairs to different points on the map that correspond to modern maps. Currently, manually matching the points up is the only way to do this!

A map from a book about Chicago placed over a modern map of Chicago.

A map of Chicago from 1891 overlaid on a modern map of the Chicago area.

David Rumsey Map Collection
The David Rumsey Map Collection is a mainstay in the world of historical maps. As of the time of writing, 68% of their total map collection has been georeferenced. There are other ways to interact with the collection, such as searching on a map for specific locations, or even viewing the maps in Second Life!

NYPL Map Warper
The New York Public Library’s Map Warper offers a large collection of historical maps georeferenced by users. Most maps have been georeferenced at this point, but users can still help out!

OpenStreetMap is the open-source, non-proprietary version of Google Maps. Many tools used in DH, like Leaflet and Omeka’s Neatline, use OpenStreetMap’s data and applications to create maps.

Digital Mapping Humanities Projects

Get inspired! Here are some DH mapping projects to help you think about applying mapping to your own research.

Maps provide the perfect medium for DH projects focused on social justice and decolonization. is a fairly recent example of this application. The project, started as a non-academic, private project in 2015, has now transformed into a not-for-profit organization. attempts to visualize land belonging to native nations in the Americas and Australia, but notably not following the official or legal boundaries. The project also provides a teacher’s guide to assist developing a curriculum around colonization in schools.

map of florida with data overlay indicating which native tribes have rights to the land

The state of Florida occupies the territory of multiple native tribes, notably those of the Seminole.

Other projects use digital tools that show a map in conjunction with another storytelling tool, like a timeline or a narrative. The levantCarta/Beirut project uses a timeline to filter which images show up on the connected map of Beirut. We can easily see the spatial representation of a place in a temporal context. A fairly easy tool for this kind of digital storytelling is TimeMapper.

For a more meta example, check out this map of digital humanities labs by Urszula Pawlicka-Deger. Of course these DH centers do projects other than mapping, but even the study of DH can make use of digital mapping!

If you’re interested in adding maps to your humanities research, check out our workshop this semester on humanities mapping. There are also great tutorials for more advanced mapping on The Programming Historian.

And as always, feel free to reach out to the Scholarly Commons ( to get started on your digital humanities project.

2019-2020 Research Travel Grant!

Are you a researcher that needs very specific resources? Are you interested in working with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign library’s vast collections? You are in luck!

A call for applications for the 2019-2020 Research Travel Grant have just opened! If you are a scholar at the graduate and post-doctoral level, you have until may 1st, 2019, to apply!

You will need to send a project proposal (no more than three pages) which clearly highlights how the work at the UIUC Library is part of your ongoing or future research, along with an updated CV, and a letter of recommendation from a local scholar in a relevant academic department of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

But what types of materials could researchers take advantage of through our library? Well, in our nearly 14-million volume collection, there is wide variety!

One of our featured collections is the Audubon Folio. This piece was originally bought for one thousand dollars, and is one of 134 that remain intact.  With the original standing three feet tall, and weighing fifty-pounds, pieces facsimile copy the university library owns is on display outside the Literature and Languages Library.

Plate 217, the Louisiana Heron

The International and Area Studies library also has an impressive collection of South Asian comics. More than 1,600 of these comics are from India, with the library’s comic collection reaching nearly 10,000 titles in more than a dozen languages.

Comic Cover from Indrajal Comics Online

And there are so many more collections at the library!

The James Collins Irish Collection is “devoted to Irish history and culture, and includes 139 volumes of bound pamphlets, as well as 2,500 unbound pieces”, entire works and pieces from 127 volumes of newspaper clippings, political cartoons, and more! The library has collection ranging from the Spanish Golden Age to American Wit and Humor.

We certainly hoped we’ve sparked your interest in our vast collection! And check out even more pieces of our distinct collections here!

Exploring Data Visualization #12

In this monthly series, I share a combination of cool data visualizations, useful tools and resources, and other visualization miscellany. The field of data visualization is full of experts who publish insights in books and on blogs, and I’ll be using this series to introduce you to a few of them. You can find previous posts by looking at the Exploring Data Visualization tag.

American segregation, mapped day and night

Is segregation in the United States improving? And if it is, what race sees the most people of different races? And do the answers to these questions change based on the time of day? Vox sets out to answer some of these questions through a video essay and an interactive map about segregation in the United States cities at work and at home.

A map of Champaign County showing data peaks where the highest population of Black people live.

This map shows the population density of Black people living in Champaign-Urbana, IL. The brighter the pink, the higher the percentage of Black people living only near Black people.

A map showing the areas in Champaign County populated by white people.

This map shows the population density of white people living in Champaign-Urbana, IL. The brighter the pink, the higher the percentage of white people living only near white people.

The map is interesting and effectively demonstrates the continued presence of segregation in communities across the United States. However, there is little detail on the map about the geographical features of the region being examined. This isn’t too much of a problem if you are familiar with the region you are looking at, but for more unfamiliar communities it leads to more questions than it answers.

NASA’s Opportunity Rover Dies on Mars


After 15 years on Mars, the Opportunity Rover Mission was officially declared finished on February 13th, 2019. The New York Times created a visualization that lets you follow Opportunity’s 28 mile path across the surface of Mars, which includes a bird’s eye view of Oppy’s path as well as images sent by the rover back to NASA. Opportunity was responsible for discovering evidence of drinkable water on Mars.

A map of the surface of mars with a yellow line showing the path of NASA's Opportunity rover. There is a small image in the corner of Santa Maria Crater taken by the rover.

The map of Opportunity’s path is accompanied by images from the rover and artists’ renderings of the surface of Mars.

The periodic table is a scatterplot. (Among others.)


The periodic table: a data visualization familiar to anyone who has ever set foot in a grade school science classroom. As Lisa Rost points out, the periodic table is actually just a simple scatter plot, with group as the x-axis and period as the y-axis. Or at least, that’s true of the Mendeleev periodic table, the one we are most familiar with. See some other examples of how to break down the periodic table on Rost’s post, which links to the Wikipedia article on alternative periodic tables. If you find a favorite, be sure to tweet it to us @ScholCommons! We are always curious to see what visualizations get people excited.

A visualization of the periodic table of the elements with the elements represented by different colored dots. The dot colors correspond to when in time the elements were discovered, which is coded in a key at the top of the chart. Yellow is before Mendeleev, blue is after Mendeleev, orange is BC, and black is since 2000.

A periodic table color coded by Lisa Rost to show when in time different elements where discovered.

I hope you enjoyed this data visualization news! If you have any data visualization questions, please feel free to email the Scholarly Commons.

Transformation in Digital Humanities

The opinions presented in this piece are solely the author’s and referenced authors. This is meant to serve as a synthesis of arguments made in DH regarding transformation.

How do data and algorithms affect our lives? How does technology affect our humanity? Scholars and researchers in the digital humanities (DH) ask questions about how we can use DH to enact social change by making observations of the world around us. This kind of work is often called “transformative DH.”

The idea of transformative DH is an ongoing conversation. As Moya Bailey wrote in 2011, scholars’ experiences and identities affect and inform their theories and practices, which allows them to make worthwhile observations in diverse areas of humanities scholarship. Just as there is strong conflict about how DH itself is defined, there is also conflict regarding whether or not DH needs to be “transformed.” The theme of the 2011 Annual DH Conference held at Stanford was “Big Tent Digital Humanities,” a phrase symbolizing the welcoming nature of the DH field as a space for interdisciplinary scholarship. Still, those on the fringes found themselves unwelcome, or at least unacknowledged.

This conversation around what DH is and what it could be exploded at the Modern Languages Association (MLA) Convention in 2011, which featured multiple digital humanities and digital pedagogy sessions aimed at defining the field and what “counts” as DH. During the convention Stephen Ramsay, in a talk boldly title “Who’s In and Who’s Out,” stated that all digital humanists must code in order to be considered a digital humanist (he later softened “code” to “build”). These comments resulted in ongoing conversations online about gatekeeping in DH, which refer to both what work counts as DH and who counts as a DHer or digital humanist. Moya Bailey also noted certain that scholars whose work focused on race, gender, or queerness and relationships with technology were “doing intersectional digital humanities work in all but name.” This work, however, was not acknowledged as digital humanities.


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To address gatekeeping in the DH community more fully, the group #transformDH was formed in 2011, during this intense period of conversation and attempts at defining. The group self-describes as an “academic guerrilla movement” aimed at re-defining DH as a tool for transformative, social justice scholarship. Their primary objective is to create space in the DH world for projects that push beyond traditional humanities research with digital tools. To achieve this, they encourage and create projects that have the ability to enact social change and bring conversations on race, gender, sexuality, and class into both the academy and the public consciousness. An excellent example of this ideology is the Torn Apart/Separados project, a rapid response DH project completed in response to the United States enacting a “Zero Tolerance Policy” for immigrants attempting to cross the US/Mexico border. In order to visualize the reach and resources of ICE (those enforcing this policy), a cohort of scholars, programmers, and data scientists banded together and published this project in a matter of weeks. Projects such as these demonstrate the potential of DH as a tool for transformative scholarship and to enact social change. The potential becomes dangerously disregarded when we set limits on who counts as a digital humanist and what counts as digital humanities work.

For further, in-depth reading on this topic, check out the articles below.