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Scholarship winner Jessica Linzel reimagines historical topics with GIS

Most historians use books, articles and archival materials in their studies of the past, but a growing number, including Jessica Linzel, one of this year’s Esri Canada GIS Scholarship recipients, are adding GIS to their toolkits. She hadn’t used GIS before starting her master’s thesis research and now sees it as a useful tool for investigating history from a different angle and for presenting it in a way that will engage audiences.

Historical GIS, or using GIS in historical research, is a growing field. From mapping important historical figures, to compiling digital copies of historical maps, to sharing traditional knowledge, it integrates both location and time to provide spatial context for historical events, and historical context for spatial data. Jessica Linzel, this year’s Esri Canada GIS Scholarship recipient from Brock University, is a recent convert to historical GIS. I asked her via email to tell me about how she first started using GIS and the role she sees for GIS in historical research.

Had you used GIS before starting your master's work? What made you decide to use it for your research?

The first time I ever used GIS was when I began my master’s work. I had some experience in local museums at this point and was interested in presenting my thesis as a more public-facing project available to a wider audience. When thinking about which topic I wanted to write on, it was my thesis supervisor who suggested I think about using GIS and gave me some books to read on the subject. There are some incredible scholars doing historical GIS and I enjoyed seeing how their projects allowed readers to go beyond a narrative text and included interactive displays showcasing research methods and conclusions. I eventually settled on a topic and doing an historical GIS seemed like an exciting way to re-imagine the subject matter. Since then, I've attended conferences and learned more about GIS and the digital humanities, and now recognize the fact that GIS is just one of many digital tools that scholars can use to interpret history.

Your thesis is a spatial study of economic development in Niagara. Was there anything that you uncovered through the spatial analysis that surprised you?

I was surprised by the way in which spatial analysis showed the importance of free labour, specifically free Black labour in Niagara in the post-Revolutionary period. Ultimately, interpretations from the point data in the GIS did what I expected, by exposing physical features such as the Niagara escarpment and the region's many creeks and rivers as economic hubs wherein diverse groups of people converged to participate in industries that formed society's foundational economic structures. However, the foregrounding of geography in this study does not negate the value of human agency! I was excited to discover how the natural environment and human action were intertwined in their impacts on economic development. For example, both proximity to manufacturing and sale points in the flour supply chain and free black labour were essential to surplus wheat production for white farmers during the first decade of settlement in Niagara. Using GIS, I was able to understand better how participation in Niagara’s economy was limited by factors of race, gender, and class, and how individuals maneuvered through their subjective socio-political position within society in their own unique way.

Jessica Linzel created a story map to share the results of her master’s thesis on the economic development in Niagara from 1783-1812.

You’ve been a teaching assistant (TA) for several history courses at Brock University. Were ArcGIS StoryMaps used in any of them?

The course that I TA'd for at Brock this past semester tasked students with creating virtual museum exhibits... something that many professors have had to pivot to doing during this pandemic. The students were taught about the different types of software that could be used to present their research, such as Omeka, Scalar and WordPress, as well as ArcGIS StoryMaps which offers a spatial element to their presentation. The professor, the other TA and I felt that the students' work would benefit from being shown from a macro lens, with their research contents contained in points plotted across the map of Canada. This still gave the option of zooming in on certain areas and learning more about them by clicking on the description fields of each pop-up box. We made use of the StoryMaps navigation bar and map action features to allow visitors to navigate to the students' content at different levels, which resulted in an understanding of their Canadian history content at national, provincial, and municipal scales.

Having only started working with GIS as a master’s student, are there any GIS skills that you think all history students should be taught?

I think all history students should be taught about the potential that tools like GIS have for investigating history. While I don't think that spatial analyses of the past are foundational approaches required for budding historians, I believe they can be very useful for projects (like mine) that warrant investigation from a different angle. Using GIS as an integral component of historical analysis isn't for everyone, but I do think that GIS as a tool for presenting research conclusions is something that all history students should be aware of. From a practical angle, I believe that hands-on experience with digital tools in general, such as GIS and spatial tools, web-building, digital exhibit creation, and text analysis is important for those looking to apply for work after graduation. History students need to be thinking about acquiring these skills when contemplating long-term goals.

What challenges do you think historians might face using GIS that researchers in other fields don’t face?

For a historian, the tools of the trade mostly include books, articles, and archival materials. I think that historians face a steep learning curve when using GIS because, at least to me, it felt like I was learning a whole new language. While historians don't typically use GIS in their work, it and other digital tools have become much more incorporated into university history departments in recent years, especially at Brock!

You’ve worked at a few different museums/historical sites/archives. Did any of them use GIS or digital maps? Do you think there are ways that they could?

I've not yet used GIS within a museum or public history context. However, I am beginning a new job in May at The Brown Homestead in St. Catharines, and my employer has said that I can start thinking about different ways we could use GIS to connect the public to our site. I absolutely believe that there are ways in which museums and historical sites can (and do!) use digital maps and GIS. The first thing that comes to mind is using story maps or ArcGIS as display tools, which I have seen some institutions use effectively in the past. Public historians and museum professionals are constantly trying to connect with the public in new and exciting ways. Especially during this pandemic as people are not allowed to visit in person, it is vital to create innovative content to engage audiences. GIS is a tool that I think can present high-quality scholarship in a manner that is easy to digest.

Have you been able to utilize any of the skills you gained while completing your degree? Are there other projects that you’ve been working on?

I have worked on a number of exciting projects over the past few months that have sort of naturally continued to draw on these concepts of user experience and the use of interactive platforms in an academic setting. The Brock Sport Oral History Archive is one example: a digital, interactive archive that preserves Canadian sporting legacies by collecting oral history interviews from individuals across the country. The sporting theme continues into my work with Brock’s Centre for Sport Capacity as project lead on a new open-access eReader focused on the subject of safe sport, also containing multi-media and application exercises designed to support students and educators.

One final question. The Esri Canada GIS Scholarship includes software, books and training. Is there any part that you are particularly looking forward to using?

I am happy to now have continued access to ArcGIS software after graduation, meaning I can continue working on projects like this in the future. I am also looking forward to using some of the training to further my knowledge of GIS. There are so many tools that I have not attempted to use yet that could be useful for historical analysis, and learning from professionals through Esri Canada will be a wonderful way to do this!


Congratulations to Jess and all of the 2021 Esri Canada GIS Scholarship recipients! To learn more about the scholarship program and past and current recipients, visit the Esri Canada Scholars Portal.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Developer and Analyst in the Esri Canada Education and Research group. Her responsibilities include developing resources for use by students and faculty at colleges and universities, focusing particularly on LiDAR, JavaScript and Android app development; collaborating on projects with researchers at select universities; and coordinating the Esri Canada scholarship programs. She has a PhD in Geomatics Engineering from the University of New Brunswick and also holds the Esri ArcGIS Desktop Associate Certification.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins