I’m a recently retired college history prof, who always loved maps for how they helped you understand history. Beginning in the early 1990s, I was getting Geographic Information Systems (GIS) help from colleagues in geography to generate stack-able topographic layers for given battlefields and routes. From 2001-2005 I was on a team of five professors – a lone historian working with two biologists and two geographers – which won a $200,000 National Science Foundation grant to integrate GIS into the general education curriculum (my particular area was the World History course). Our platform was the E.S.R.I. Arc suite, which was exciting but also frustratingly complex to use and very expensive. When the long-promised freeware version came out, it was missing many of the elements that I thought had made the original exciting.

In the spring of 2006 a geography colleague and I were asked to do a presentation to the Arts & Sciences faculty of Ohio State University on the integration of GIS into the general education curriculum. One of our most interested audience members was from an English and literature background. He kept asking,”What can ArcGIS do that the new, free Google Earth can’t?” As it turns out, lots! But the question prompted me to spend that summer learning Google Earth, using trips I’d made as working examples. For teaching purposes I quickly converted to it. First, it was free (for me AND my students). Second, a Google Earth folder usually e-mailed in small compass – in kb instead of gb – because the basic information on the screen is recreated on the other end by Google Earth and doesn’t have to be e-mailed. And thirdly, the basic layers automatically contain all sorts of available information – users don’t have to a) find, and b) load information into it for it to work.

The last ten years of my college teaching, GIS (Google Earth variety) simply transformed my classes. Most lecture sessions I had the lights half down and Google Earth up and running on the screen. Students still had to do classic research papers in my class, but I insisted they give Google Earth presentations on them to the class (one two-hour computer lab session was usually enough to equip them with the basic tools). Never in my decades-long career had students really paid much attention to other students’ presentations until then. I think it was the visuality of GIS that grabbed them; the spatial relationships they viewed almost always explained a lot about the historical story being told.

I spent decades working on a modern world history textbook, and by 2007 had it at least in rough form – fourteen chapters, seven on the rise of modern European power and then seven on the response of the rest of the world to European intrusion. I thought it would take a year to “GIS” it up with parallel Google Earth folders, but GIS-ing it turned out to be a real self-education and it took seven years; the text only came out in 2014. It is titled Fairy Tales, Patriotism and the Nation-State: The Rise of the Modern West and the Response of the World (with parallel Google Earth folder for each chapter). In the spirit that Google Earth was freeware, I thought the Google Earth folders should be, too, and posted all fourteen on Google Earth Community – with instructions in the Introduction of the textbook on how to access them. Scholarly references were relegated to the endnotes of each chapter, but the footnotes referred to matching number layers in the Google Earth folder for that chapter. It was and still is a bit cumbersome – students have the book open reading it and Google Earth open on a desktop or laptop computer. When they come to a footnote they have to put down the book and go work on Google Earth on the computer. But I would argue with the students that perhaps a third of the value of the whole history lesson was in the Google Earth visuals.

Recently Google has retrenched somewhat in this educational domain. In January of 2018 they discontinued the Panoramio icons where users posted their pictures at a given latitude and longitude. With the loss of Panoramio went perhaps a fifth of my thousands and thousands of Google Earth-based footnotes, because I had created Placemarks to direct students to those very photos. Google was in the process of migrating to Google Maps Photos. So I spent the spring of 2018 redoing all fourteen folders (.kmz files), trying to find pictures in Google Maps Photos to replace ones from Panoramio, or when unavailable, photos from some website. Then the Google Earth Community site was turned over to for-profit folks, and I lost the place where I posted the fourteen Google Earth folders for my textbook.

So to start with, this website is a place to post those Google Earth folders associated with my modern world history text (not because I define my book as an “important non-fiction book”!). But so many other books, especially ones I had assigned in my classes, had benefited from a GIS geographic treatment – Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom; Jung Chang’s Wild SwansThree Daughters of China; Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed; Ian McHarg’s Design With Nature; Simon Winchester’s The Map That Changed the World; Orlando Figes’ Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia; David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America . . . . So the long-term aim of this site is to post GIS illustrations of books like this, that will bring the wonderful visual and spatial references of GIS to inform a reader, and perhaps even bring about renewed interest in such classics. It seems like a worthy thing to do with my declining years, and maybe soon other GIS users can use the site to post similar projects, even using different GIS platforms.

So welcome to this fledgling GIS-ing Important Nonfiction Books project!  If you’ve got comments or questions, please write me at jsbrown@samford.edu.

Jim Brown

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