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Geographic Information Systems (GIS) & Rural History





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 could encompass a farmer’s lot or larger political boundaries. However, it is also possible to attach historical data to these geographical places 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 crops.
  • 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 of joined or linked tables, combine it with images to represent them visually as layers.

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.

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homecontactSite MapAcknowledgements
Rural History, Farming, Farm, Food, Agriculture, Rural Life, Countryside, Canada, History, Harvesting, Settlement, Rural, Culture, Veterinary, Agricultural science, Farm labourer, Farmer, Children, Gender, Rural Industries, Victorian, Edwardian, Twentieth century, Nineteenth century, Eighteenth century  

This research was undertaken, in part, thanks to funding
from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canada Research Chairs Program.
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