What is GIS?

GIS stands for Geographic Information System, or software that combines an interactive map with a relational database. A GIS can be used to display many layers of information on one map, using a variety of colors, shapes and labels. The map is not just for looking at: it is an interactive database, made for asking and investigating questions by zooming in and out, seeking different locations, turning layers of data on and off, and making queries to get specific information about a place.

For a detailed and colorfully illustrated description of GIS and their many uses, visit this online poster describing GIS from the United States Geological Survey.

Many professions have used GIS for many years: demography, archeology, geology, epidemiology, geophysics, law enforcement, meteorology, and others.

In recent years educators have become more and more interested in teaching with GIS, leading to exciting projects such as Northwestern University's GEODE Initiative, that are creating GIS applications that can be used by investigators from elementary school age and up, such as MyWorld.

Using GIS for History

The use of GIS for historical research is a very new field, and this web site is one of several new projects that are beginning to apply GIS to the study and teaching of History.

In the words of historian Anne Knowles,

"Over the past fifteen years the work of map-loving historians has been made easier and more exciting by the availability of personal computers and geographic information system (GIS) software... It is now possible to devise dynamic views of past experience in the form of animated series of map images that can be started and stopped as "time" progresses to show conditions at any given moment. It is also possible to bring together multiple maps in a single image, and to represent and analyze information as multiple layers in a single map document. These capabilities could well make map lovers of a new generation of computer-literate historians, and bring computing expertise to future generations of map lovers."

-- from Knowles, Anne Kelly, ed. Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History. Redlands, California: ESRI Press, 2002.

Examples of GIS software

GIS software applications for the classroom:

On-line GIS sites:

Sites to download GIS data sets:











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