The purpose of this web page is to help students and
researchers think spatially about rural history. There are now several
guides available for using GIS in historical research, so the description of basic and advanced concepts is brief and the case study is directed
to rural historians.
Another major component is a collection of links to a rich and rapidly growing
variety of electronically accessible maps and data (spatial and other
information) that may serve rural historians. Researchers at the
University of Guelph will benefit from the Library’s commitment to
providing GIS resources and training, and are encouraged to plan their project and contact library staff with more specific questions.
What is GIS?
GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is a spatially
referenced relational database system that can store, create, analyze and display statistical
and spatial information – maps.
Real world features are stored and represented in
a GIS in three forms:
- First, a GIS uses points, lines, and polygons,
also known as vector data. Its first order of work is to arrange
these and project them
accurately on maps. Points may be towns or telephone
poles; lines could represent rivers or railroads; and polygons
a farmer’s lot or larger political boundaries. However,
it is also possible to attach historical data to these geographical
and study how people interacted with and changed
their physical environments.
The population of towns changed, rivers changed their
courses, lots were subdivided, and land was planted with various
- Second, raster data are digital images that
can be useful for display or topographical analysis.
- Finally, tabular data are attributes stored
in database files.
The power of GIS is its ability to take tabular
data and through a relational database, which contain a series
or linked tables, combine it with images to represent them visually
Using GIS for Rural History
GIS software is an effective tool for connecting and comparing otherwise
separate maps and tables. Historians have access to many historical
maps and quantitative data, but the job of finding large-scale
spatial patterns in the latter is tedious. By making it possible
to link historical sources to spatial data, GIS facilitates analysis
of relationships between people and space.
The software allows researchers to select – either
visually or by attributes – and study specific data within a larger
set. Selecting by attributes is useful in many ways. For example,
using the census a researcher can study extensive rural areas in
great detail by selecting only the people in a known region or only
those with certain occupations, religions, or ages. In a GIS, the
researcher can see a whole subset of these people across a large
space or study a specific area based on geographical attributes.
GIS has been especially useful to urban historical
geographers, and accurate historical population data is often most
available for urban areas. However, social, economic, and environmental
historians may also find the methodology useful for doing rural history.
Two quintessential aspects of rural life are a close relationship
with the environment and the distance from urban areas and other
economic and social infrastructure. GIS is particularly well suited
to studies of proximity and the analysis of environmental factors
such as climate, altitude, and soil quality.
back to top