The Productive Scholar: Ben Johnston on Mapping in the Humanities

Ben Johnston
Ben Johnston

Ben Johnston, lead instructional technologist at Princeton’s Humanities Resource Center (HRC) started his session by explaining that he decided to focus on mapping in the humanities using Google mapping applications in this presentation for a few reasons. He noted that ArcGIS and many other GIS applications already have a strong following in the sciences, and a lot of good work is being done there. He says that we can provide more scholarly attention in the humanities using geolocation. There are benefits from mapping in the humanities that one can easily carry out with tools like Google Earth and Google Maps, both of which have a very low threshold of entry for their use. Many GIS tools are highly capable and advanced, but usually have a high learning curve comparative to Google Maps and Earth.

Maps were once frozen in time in paper form, simple snapshots of what existed at some specific point. Now, digital maps can show a moving history, and one can mashup data from two or more applications that all speak the same language, like HTML, JavaScript, or geolocation data. Digital maps provide the potential of a dynamic, living resource, unlike a traditional map. Mashups are a good way to begin to understand how geolocation is useful in visualizing data for scholars.

Uses for maps in the humanities could be classified in four ways, according to Johnston:

  • mashups
  • reference materials or resources
  • research organizational tools
  • collaborative note taking tools

He also said that mapping in scholarly work can:

  • help to make a literary work come alive
  • organize historical research by locale
  • allow students to take geolocation based notes in the field

He noted that maps can be used to plot mapping locations (waypoints or placemarks) versus mapping data (color coded maps showing an event or idea associated with areas, such as a state, or a diameter around a ground zero event).

Using plugins like WP-geo, you can associate WordPress posts with place. In Representing the Queen of Sheba, students read literary sources on the topic, found references to the topic, and plotted them on the map. is one example in a million of useful geolocation mashups. It takes Craigslist housing listings and maps them using Google Maps. It changes the maps dynamically according to new incoming data from Craigslist, and makes the map’s placemarks sortable by price, site, and so on. Though this is a more general-use example of a mashup, many academic uses of mashups exist.

Princeton’s HRC has done several maps-centric projects, and Johnston shared some of them.

The German Department collaborated with the HRC to make a student-driven research site that consisted of placemarked reports of visits by Princeton students in Munich to restaurants, bars, groceries, and gyms. It allowed a more authentic, Princeton-centric understanding of students who were new to Munich to learn from their peers’ experience.

The Princeton Pawprints project was a collaboration between a visiting journalism instructor and the HRC. Students wrote stories about sustainability efforts and issues on campus, by reporting with locations on a map. In this case, navigation is provided purely by the placemarks.

Mapping the Golden Age of Venice made use of an authentic scanned map, draped over Google Maps, and information about locations was added to each placemark on the map.

Falda’s Rome used a lithograph of Rome, overlaid on Google Maps. It allowed students to explore the map without handling the valuable, fragile map.

In Venice and the Mediterranean (Venetian Crete), students went to various locations in Crete, wrote up reports of locations, and plotted them on the map. Today, students might just take geolocated photos to capture the locations, as opposed to putting them in manually as they were here.

In closing, Johnston then shared some projects in literature using geolocation: