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Grant received for the making of a digital atlas

Published: January 28, 2013, 8:52 pm ET
Collegian Reporter

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has awarded the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab (DSL) a three-year, $750,000 grant to develop a digital atlas of American history.

The DSL, which opened in 2007, is a digital humanities center that works to digitize historical research, thereby making it more accessible to historians, students and the public, said Robert Nelson, director of the DSL.

Since then, the members of this small organization have tackled a series of historical projects. The “Visualizing Emancipation” initiative offers a geographic perspective of slavery’s end during the Civil War, while “Voting America” maps presidential elections since 1840 and congressional elections since 1992. Members have also engineered “Redlining Richmond,” which illustrates residential security grades that the government assigned to neighborhoods in Richmond during the Great Depression, Nelson said.

Now, with this grant from the Mellon Foundation, the DSL team is taking on a new project: the digitization of Charles O. Paullin’s 1932 “Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States,” Nelson said.

Although this atlas is more than 80 years old, it is also one of the best American history resources, Nelson said. The digital version would offer insight into more than 14 topics, including migration, transportation, communication, politics, religion and reform.

Once completed, the online atlas will be able to show change over time, allowing for deeper exploratory capabilities and a more detailed learning experience, Nelson said.

“Mapping history is a difficult challenge,” Nelson said. “This resource will offer an alternative to narrative accounts and will provide a new type of visual perspective on American history.”

The atlas features five maps that illustrate rates of travel by depicting the time it took to move from New York to other parts of the country during the years 1800, 1830, 1857 and 1930. When viewed together, these maps show how the development of roads, canals, railroads and air travel compressed the country, Nelson said.

Though the maps in the atlas are not able to be adapted, the digital representation will combine all five maps into one, offering a more comprehensive explanation of how infrastructural developments revolutionized travel throughout America, Nelson said.

Junior Stefan St. John, who has worked at the DSL for three years, said he thought using new media to enhance the atlas would not only make the information more accessible, but also more interactive.

“With this digitized atlas, there will be no more trudging through data,” St. John said. “Instead, viewers will actually experience the data and watch as it builds on itself.”

The DSL team thinks these interactive approaches to American history will prove to be incredibly useful teaching resources in both high school and undergraduate classrooms, Nelson said.

Scott Nesbit, associate director of the DSL, said this was an ambitious project that would take many years to finish. The grant from the Mellon Foundation, which is the largest grant the DSL has ever received, is enough to initiate, but not complete, the project.

While the date of completion remains undetermined, parts of the enhanced atlas will be released periodically throughout the three-year process, Nesbit said.

Nelson, Nesbit and University of Richmond President Edward Ayers will edit the atlas.

Contact staff writer Katie Conklin at katie.conklin@richmond.edu

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