Review of Historical GIS book on

By Jessica DeWitt. Originally posted to NiCHE-Canada 3 October 2014.

Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin, eds. Historical GIS Research in Canada. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2014. 322 pp. $39.95 (paperback) ISBN: 978-1-55238-708-5; Free (PDF) ISBN: 978-1-55238-744-3.

Reviewed By: Jessica DeWitt (University of Saskatchewan)

Published: The Otter-NiCHE (October, 2014)

Historical GIS Research in Canada features a collection of essays that explores the ways in which Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and spatial analysis have been employed in Canadian historical scholarship and discusses future possibilities for the growth of Historical GIS (HGIS) in Canada.

The editors of the collection, Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin, hold expertise in HGIS through their involvement in the Don River Historical Mapping Project, a project that compiled and made public historical maps and geospatial datasets related to the Don River in Toronto–a process that is discussed more in depth in chapter 3. The first thing one notices when picking up the volume is how visually appealing it is. Following in the footsteps of Anne Kelly Knowles’ two edited volumes, Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History (2002) and Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship (2008) [1], this collection is decked out in full-color maps, graphs, and photographs. These images make comprehension of the material more readily graspable and simply increase the pleasure of reading the collection. However, Bonnell and Fortin emphasize that HGIS is not merely a way to visualize data and other sources, but rather a novel and useful way by which to conduct serious historical analysis. “Readily apparent,” they write, “… are the rewards of working with GIS technology to visualize past places and societies at differing scales” (p. x).

Twenty-seven individuals, including historians, scientists, geographers, librarians, and others, contributed to the essays within the collection, highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of HGIS. The majority of essays in Historical GIS Research in Canada are examples of environmental history. However there are also essays that deal more directly with urban, Indigenous, or demographic topics. Subject matters also span both rural and urban settings, and extend coast to coast. The variety of topics represented in the volume is another strength of the collection. Essays such as Matthew G. Hatvany’s “Growth and Erosion” and Joanna Dean and Jon Pasher’s “Mapping Ottawa’s Urban Forest, 1928-2005″ use GIS to represent changes in environment and landscape through time. Other essays use GIS to focus on specific groups of people. The collection is bookended by two essays, by John S. Lutz, and by Byron Moldofsky, that map Canadian census data to test and augment conclusions about race and demography from textual sources. In “Turning Space Inside Out,” Lutz et. al. map individual households and classify them by race (Indigenous, Chinese, European, and other) in order to test prior assumptions made about racial divisions in Victorian Victoria. Moldosky uses census microdata, detailed information pulled from the original census manuscripts, in “Exploring Historical Geography Using Census Microdata” to explore spatial questions surrounding population origins, hierarchical household classification, and single and multiple person households. In “The Best Seat in the House,” Andrew Hinson, combine ethnic and religious history by using church pew rent books to map the home locales of church attendants.

In addition to a variety of topics, the essays in the collection also represent a wide array of GIS methodologies and tools. Several of the essays demonstrate the usefulness of pairing GIS with aerial photography for historical analysis. In “Top-down History,” for example, Joshua D. MacFadyen and William M. Glen use aerial photographs of Prince Edward Island to question the accuracy of historical deforestation estimates made by the Canadian Census of Agriculture. They write that these “aerial photographs and the subsequent forest inventories carried out using the photography present a much finer level of detail and greater potential for research.” (p. 202) In “Mapping the Welland Canals and the St. Lawrence Seaway with Google Earth,” Colleen Beard et. al. demonstrate the utility and functionality of Google Earth and Maps in creating custom maps. The Google mapping tools enable one to do many of the same things available in ArcGIS–the preeminent GIS software–without the cost of buying a license. Stephen Bocking and Barbara Znamirowski show the benefit of georeferencing historical maps–that is, associating a physical map or image of a map with exact spatial coordinates–in “Stories of People, Land, and Water.” And in “Rebuilding a Neighbourhood of Montreal,” Francois Dufaux and Sherry Olson demonstrate the benefits of being able to zoom in and out with GIS, altering the scale at which analysis can be conducted.

A refreshing characteristic of this volume is the authors’ honesty. The essays are upfront about the difficulties and challenges of using GIS and the limitations of GIS methods of analysis. In “‘I do not know the boundaries of this land, but I know the land which I worked’: Historical GIS and Mohawk Land Practices,” Daniel Rueck addresses the challenges of representing Indigenous people using GIS and non-Indigenous surveyor texts. Rueck writes that “the problem for Indigenous peoples is not necessarily the technology of mapping itself but who controls the technology and in whose interests. When GIS is used in the interests of, and in consultation with, Indigenous peoples, it can serve to counter colonialist and statist narratives.” (pp. 144-5) In their chapter, Bonnell and Fortin openly discuss the fact that the data and maps that they have collected in connection to the Don River Historical Mapping Project, like any source, are not definitive. A map can only represent the information shown on it; a GIS project can only be as comprehensive as the sources available. Availability of sources and data is a key theme in Bonnell and Fortin’s essay and throughout the collection. This concern represents a broader conversation in the HGIS and GIS communities. Making datasets and maps publicly available is a constant challenge facing those using HGIS and digital methods in general.

Historical GIS Research in Canada offers an approachable yet expansive introduction to HGIS and the ways in which it is being used in Canadian historiography. Its presentation makes it an excellent way by which to introduce undergraduate or graduate students to HGIS methodology. It would work well as a companion text in any environmental, Canadian, or digital history course. Another positive attribute of the collection–and one that increases its worth as a teaching tool–is an appendix with an impressive bibliography of books, articles, websites, and archival sources. The paperback version of the book is affordable and it is also available free in PDF form from the University of Calgary Press website, which only adds to its attractiveness for use in the classroom or simply as an enjoyable read for the HGIS novice or enthusiast.


  1. Anne Kelly Knowles, Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History (Redlands: ESRI Press, 2002); Knowles and Amy Hillier, Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (Redlands: ESRI Press, 2008).

Citation: Jessica Dewitt. Review of Jennifer Bonnell and Marcel Fortin, Historical GIS Research in Canada. The Otter ~ La Loutre Reviews. October, 2014.