Mapping the Past Digitally

August 1, 2009

Yesteryear: detail, map of Trinity College campus, 1902.


Digital Durham Project

A collaborative effort between members of the Duke and Durham communities merges Google Earth technology with historic city maps, offering a new online resource for educators, historians, and local citizens.

The Digital Durham website, which includes U.S. Census data, photographs, and personal and public records dating back to post-Civil War Durham, recently added more than thirty newly digitized maps from the city's department of public works and local university libraries, including two integrated with Google Earth satellite images of present-day Durham.

"With this new virtual collection, we're enabling people to travel through time to see what Durham looked like and to connect past and present," says visiting assistant professor Trudi Abel, director of the Digital Durham Project at Duke, who worked with city officials to make the maps publicly available. "These maps tell all kinds of stories. There's an amazing amount of detail packed into them."

One hand-drawn map depicts Durham as a village in the 1860s; later maps illustrate growing roadways, sewer systems, and city infrastructure. The collection includes a 1937 public works map demarcating "white" and "Negro" streets and playgrounds, a Cold War-era map with annotations predicting potential damage from a nuclear bomb, and a hand-colored annexation map showing Durham's growth from 1890 to 2001.

The city now uses a geographic information system (GIS) for mapping, but city GIS analyst George Locke admits a fondness for the old hand-drawn maps, which engineers still use on occasion to field maintenance requests for the city's water and sewer systems. He pulled together about a dozen maps for Abel from cabinets and closets where they'd been squirreled away—and even rescued a few from the trash. Some were too tattered or fragile to scan; others were so large they had to be cut in half to scan.

Juxtaposing the historic maps with Google Earth helps bring local history to life for students who otherwise might not appreciate Durham's importance as an industrializing city in the New South, says Courtney Jamison '10.

Jamison, an international comparative- studies major, used the maps to research a paper about the James A. Whitted School, Durham's first African-American graded school. "With the Google Earth technology, you can really see how the history relates to you. It's eye-opening," she says.

Abel hopes to secure funding for the next step: working with visualization experts at Duke to integrate Durham city-directory data—including residents' race, occupation, and address—to construct an interactive three-dimensional map of Durham's population patterns over time.

"This new virtual collection of maps gives people a way to visualize and explore big ideas like industrialization, immigration, and segregation—to see how they take place through time," she says.