Pilot Summary

Pilot Summary: The Birth of Boston

The Birth of Boston project explores ways that archival collections can be combined with contemporary mapping tools to develop multi-layered maps of Boston’s physical space and infrastructure over time. Using collections that have been digitized by the Massachusetts Historical Society and the New England Genealogical Society, the Birth of Boston combines the spatial data of 17th-century maps with data about the people who lived in the city. The ongoing development of the Birth of Boston has also informed BRC-wide best practices for other projects focused on bringing together different types of data and addressing the challenges of normalizing inconsistent or partial datasets. The project prototype, featuring work completed during the summer of 2018, can be found here.

The project team originally conceived of what would become the Birth of Boston as a tool for use in Professor Chris Parsons’ history courses at Northeastern University. Noting that students were interested in dynamic maps that allowed them to explore historical Boston landmarks and sites while physically navigating through Boston, Chris and PhD students Molly Nebiolo and Matthew Bowser identified two collections at MHS as the foundations for this prototype.

First, the map used by the project team was created by amateur historian Samuel C. Clough, whose skills as a trained surveyor led him to a decades-long project developing a topographical history of Boston from the first European settlements through 1798. Importantly, Clough’s efforts also included a series of property ownership maps reconstructed for selected years during that period. The project team utilized one of Clough’s maps showing the 1648 landscape of Boston, georectified and georeferenced by the project team using ArcGIS. The challenges of overlaying a digital copy of a historical map onto a geographic information system, while maintaining the integrity of the original map, presented complex challenges. As researcher Molly Nebiolo describes in a blog post, due to the changes in Boston’s geography since the 18th century, developing a multi-layered and dynamic map that reflects these complexities without erasing or flattening them has been an important part of the development of this project.

Second, the team used a collection consisting of thousands of index cards, created by amateur historian and children’s book author Anna Haven Thwing in the early 20th century and donated to the MHS. Thwing copied information from state archival sources to create this collection, ultimately cataloguing approximately 50,000 residents who lived in Boston during its first two centuries, documented on individual note cards. Birth of Boston researchers using this collection had to decipher the textual data on the digital surrogates of these cards, while also searching for larger contextual information to fill in missing information. This ambiguity in the available data made it difficult to distinguish between people with very similar names, for example, or recognize when the same name might be spelled multiple ways. The granularity of data that makes the Thwing collection so useful to the Birth of Boston researchers, then, also requires increased attention to the methods and execution of normalizing datasets for inclusion on the final project map, and suggests some of the challenges that will arise for the larger BRC in using archival sources in ways that leverage both their documentary detail and the access they offer to systematic information.

The prototype map as of November 2018 includes the 1648 Clough land parcel map, with information from the Thwing collection about the people who lived and worked there. Given the challenges of using different types of archival datasets to create this interactive map, the Birth of Boston prototype has helped the wider BRC team to identify the tools and frameworks that can support other map- and spatially-oriented digital humanities work in the BRC.  Reconciling the messy realities of sometimes idiosyncratic or incomplete datasets with the need for consistent data continues to be a theme in other projects, including the Early Black Boston Digital Almanac.

Th Birth of Boston also connects with ongoing conversations and work on using interactive digital maps. Mapping Inequality, at the University of Richmond, is another project that builds on student research, archival materials, and georectified maps to develop new ways of looking at historical change over time. Digital Athens, a project from Duke University, digitizes and georeferences historical maps and archaeological remains onto contemporary maps of Greece.

The next phase of the BRC will greatly expand the number of historical maps that are available as reference points for datasets (such as census or land use data), and will enable the project team to use the 1648 map as a model for other historical maps of Boston. It will also expand the project’s scope to incorporate materials not covered by Thwing and Clough, including indigenous spatial histories and archives from Boston’s African American communities. In the long term, the team plans to develop walking tours and other pedagogical materials that will widen the project’s reach and use for students, researchers, and the public.


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