According Rob Nelson, guest lecturer at Duquesne University’s annual History Forum and director of the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond, the last great historical atlas was published in 1932. It was called "The Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States," and it included a series of maps that illustrated how the nation changed over time.
“The atlas … has maps that map every presidential election from 1789 to 1932,” Nelson said. “It has maps of cotton, corn, tobacco and wheat production. It has maps of explorations. It has maps of the natural environment.”
The editor of that atlas, John K. Wright, noted upon its publication that "the ideal historical atlas might well be a collection of motion picture maps, if these could be displayed on the pages of a book without the paraphernalia of projector, reel and screen."
Fast forward 80 years, and that ideal historical atlas is becoming a reality, thanks in large part to a grant awarded to Nelson’s lab by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation.
“They gave us last year $750,000 to start working on a digital atlas of American History,” Nelson said.
“We’re developing a first couple of volumes. The first one’s going to be on transportation and the second one’s going to be on the environment.”
Nelson is not reinventing the wheel here. One part of the project involves digitizing the original 1932 atlas in its entirety and adding digital functionality, like animation and links.
“Instead of having to turn page after page, you can click a button and it will play the animation, so you can see some of the changes that they meant to illustrate,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he expects the atlas to be available for free online in the next month or two.
“Part of the reason we want to make these maps available is we think they’re going to be not just of interest to professors of history, but interesting to undergraduate students and high school students and just … to people who are interested in maps and history,” Nelson said.
The second part of the project involves using the 1932 atlas as a model to create a completely new, entirely digital updated version.
Nelson said new technologies have renewed public interest in geography and, to a certain extent, mapping.
“People refer to this as a spatial turn. There’s a turn toward thinking about space, thinking about place, thinking about geography,” Nelson said. “Sometimes that involves maps, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
Nelson’s talk is at 6 p.m. on Wednesday in the Power Center Ballroom on the Duquesne University campus.