Geography Historical GIS
Weiwei Zhang, John R. Logan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0163


Historical GIS (HGIS) is an interdisciplinary field that integrates the tools and methods of geographic information Science (GIS) into historical research. HGIS projects and studies emphasize the role of spatial context and relationships in understanding the emergence, development, and consequences of historical events. GIS provides techniques and tools to create, manage, display, and analyze historical data. Historical researchers use GIS functions such as digitization, georeferencing, geocoding, and so on to convert spatial features that are presented on a historical paper map or in other archival documents to a digital map that can be recognized by standard GIS software. The development of databases in GIS allows historical researchers to build up a spatial-temporal geodatabase that combines the locational and spatial information with the nonspatial data pertaining to the historical event of interest for data management and manipulation. Another feature of HGIS that makes it a distinct field is the use of GIS for displaying and analyzing historical data. The use of layers in GIS makes it possible to integrate historical data from multiple sources of different time periods for pilot explorations. Researchers can choose among a wide range of geoprocessing and statistical tools to include locations and spatial and temporal relationships explicitly into the analysis of historical events. Early-21st-century development in HGIS work has begun to examine a variety of visualization methods for the incorporation of qualitative data.

General Overviews

Ideas about spatial concepts and maps have long been part of historical scholarship, but the emergence of GIS since the 1990s has created HGIS as a new specialization. Anne Kelly Knowles and Ian Gregory have written several overviews of HGIS. Gregory and Healey 2007 describes key abilities of GIS that have been increasingly applied to historical research for data management, illustration, and analysis. They review HGIS projects based on the GIS abilities used in the studies. Other works, such as Ell and Gregory 2001, Knowles 2005, DeBats and Gregory 2011, which were written as introduction of thematic journal issues on HGIS, include general discussions of how GIS can be integrated to historical research in various disciplines. Knowles 2016, the most recent overview, summarizes the emergence and development of HGIS and discusses future directions such as integrating qualitative historical evidence and spatial statistics. Despite its advantages, there are concerns that researchers will lose sight of theoretical questions as they master details of GIS methods. Hillier 2010, however, argue that GIS will facilitate formation of spatial questions and conceptualizations that link theories and methods. Finally, a website set up and maintained by Ian Gregory and Paul Ell, Historical GIS Research Network, is an excellent online portal for a comprehensive list of HGIS research projects, publications, and conferences, as well as resources for teaching and doing research in HGIS.

  • DeBats, Donald A., and Ian N. Gregory. “Introduction to Historical GIS and the Study of Urban History.” In Special Issue: Historical GIS and the Study of Urban History. Social Science History 35.4 (2011): 455–463.

    This article introduces a thematic issue of Social Science History. It first discusses the advantages of GIS, including visualization of explicit and relative locations, representation of a study area by using multiple sources, and spatial statistical tools for analyzing the impact of space and place. It then reviews case studies in urban history that utilized GIS, to advance understanding of the topic of research interest.

  • Ell, Paul S., and Ian N. Gregory. “Adding a New Dimension to Historical Research with GIS.” History and Computing 13.1 (2001): 1–6.

    DOI: 10.3366/hac.2001.13.1.1

    This article introduces a thematic issue of History and Computing. It discusses GIS and its key abilities, describes the development of HGIS in different fields, and gives suggestions as to what GIS has to offer historical research.

  • Gregory, Ian N., and Richard G. Healey. “Historical GIS: Structuring, Mapping and Analysing Geographies of the Past.” Progress in Human Geography 31.5 (2007): 638–653.

    DOI: 10.1177/0309132507081495

    This article emphasizes three primary themes: the creation and dissemination of HGIS databases, the use of GIS to perform quantitative and qualitative analyses, and the underlying conceptual issues that underpin GIS. It reviews empirical studies that are relevant to each theme.

  • Hillier, Amy. “Invitation to Mapping: How GIS Can Facilitate New Discoveries in Urban and Planning History.” Journal of Planning History 9.2 (2010): 122–134.

    DOI: 10.1177/1538513210366964

    This article discusses HGIS research in urban and planning history, specifically on migration, segregation, gentrification, and suburbanization, which are inherently spatial topics. The article points out that GIS provides new insights to theoretical questions through a process of extracting the meaning from historical space and place.

  • Historical GIS Research Network.

    This website, created by Gregory and Ell, provides a portal for a wide variety of links and resources relevant to HGIS, including up-to-date lists of research projects, bibliography, conferences, links to historical maps, and other relevant websites.

  • Knowles, Anne Kelly. “Emerging Trends in Historical GIS.” In Special Issue: Emerging Trends in Historical GIS. Historical Geography 33 (2005): 7–13.

    This article introduces a thematic issue of Historical Geography. It reviews methodological challenges faced by scholars, including identification of accurate historical boundaries for administrative units, dealing with the uncertainty of historical locations and the imprecision of historical data, and the application of geostatistical methods to historical questions.

  • Knowles, Anne Kelly. “The Contested Nature of Historical GIS.” International Journal of Geographical Information Science 28.1 (2014): 206–211.

    DOI: 10.1080/13658816.2013.850696

    This is a review essay of History and GIS: Epistemologies, Considerations and Reflections (Lünen and Travis 2012, cited under Books on Historical GIS). It addresses the concerns and critiques raised in the book about the application of GIS in historical research, including the extreme diversity of subjects and data sources, the lack of guidance and training opportunities, and the difficulty of linking to theoretical interests.

  • Knowles, Anne Kelly. “Historical Geographic Information Systems and Social Science History.” Social Science History 40.4 (2016): 741–750.

    DOI: 10.1017/ssh.2016.29

    This article recounts the growth of HGIS research at the Social Science History Association (SSHA) and beyond. It discusses the challenges to use GIS in historical research and emerging directions in HGIS scholarship, such as measuring and accounting for uncertainty, study of historical gazetteers, combining GIS with textual analysis, and connections between the physical environment and human perceptions of social space and place.

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