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Bob Schwartz: Mapping History in the Classroom

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March 12 , 2004

Bob Schwartz: Mapping History in the Classroom

Photo: Todd M. LeMieux

Bob Schwartz

Visit the new Mount Holyoke Historical Atlas on the Web and see the seminary where Mary Lyon convened the first class of the College on November 8, 1837. Click ahead a century and view the devastation wrought by the Great Hurricane of 1938 that ripped out more than 90 percent of the trees from Prospect Hill. Another click brings you to the present day. This ever-expandable online resource is the brainchild of E. Nevins Redmon Professor of History Bob Schwartz, a passionate practitioner of historical geography and environmental history.

It all started some 15 years ago, when Schwartz was consulting a leading history of nineteenth-century England and found that it contained not a single map. He was astonished that such a work could be published with no geographical representation of the subject matter. “As a social historian, I need to have a sense of place in order to do my work,” Schwartz explained. “I’m attuned to maps.”

This cartographic deficiency spurred Schwartz to dig into the field of historical geography and make it a centerpiece of his scholarly work in and out of the classroom. Building on his long interest in quantitative approaches to history, he was attracted to Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology and, in 1997, he took an intensive week-long course at the University of London in England, where pioneering work in historical GIS was being done. Since then, Schwartz, who admits to being a “computer nut,” has been combining cutting-edge GIS technology with primary-source materials to enhance our understanding of history.

Schwartz’s first project was to trace the effect of the development of the British railway system on the country’s population distribution. “The question is inherently spatial,” he said. He hypothesized that, contrary to what other historians have suggested, the expansion of the rail system did not promote rural migration to the cities, at least in the first several decades following the arrival of routine rail service. Rather, rail service served to hold rural inhabitants in the countryside by creating new economic opportunities for marketing local products in major commercial centers. Using old maps and railroad records, Schwartz created a series of maps reflecting the reach of the rail system at different points in time. He coupled that data with census data from the same time periods. His initial results have borne out his hunch.

While a substantial amount of Schwartz’s scholarly work has been in French social history, he chose to work on England first because the necessary demographic information already existed in “The Great Britain Historical GIS,” which his colleagues at the University of Portsmouth, England, made available to him. On leave this spring, Schwartz will be extending his research to France, where historical GIS is in its infancy. The task of compiling the data will be a greater challenge, he said, but one readily met, thanks to his research on England.

Schwartz finds that GIS technology and archival research also work well together as teaching tools. He has designed course materials based on his railway project for England that teach students how to use the GIS and census data to identify patterns in demographic changes over time. One of his students used the course as a springboard for writing a thesis on the effect of railroads on the development of London. “The railway stations were the public palaces of the nineteenth century,” Schwartz observed. Dartmouth College commissioned Schwartz to write up his materials as part of its program in quantitative reasoning. He looks forward to using his new work on France as the nucleus for a new course.

Closer to home, Schwartz developed the Mount Holyoke Historical Atlas through a fall semester course on the history of the campus. As a self-described “archive rat,” he took great satisfaction in his students’ excitement in working in the College’s archives. “It’s rewarding and gratifying for the students to get their fingers dusty working with the old documents. They came up with terrific stuff. I love the hunt and discovery. For me, there’s no substitute for looking at a document written hundreds of years ago.” He noted that the College’s archives are “tremendous. There are big pieces of American history, not only women’s history, reflected in the archives.”

One of Schwartz’s aims is to overcome many students’ fear of computing and statistical analysis, which are basic tools for historical geography as well as quantitative history—not to mention marketable skills. Sandy North ’05 said that working with Schwartz “has challenged the way I think about doing history. He’s helped me learn how to work across boundaries between traditional historical data and methodology, modern technology, and other academic disciplines.”

Schwartz helped develop and teach a course in quantitative reasoning with mathematics professors George Cobb, Janice Gifford, and Harriet Pollatsek that introduces students to basic methods of data analysis. To make the material more palatable, he chooses topics that will pique students’ interest, such as witchcraft in early modern Europe and New England. “I enjoy taking a group of students with little or no background in computing or statistics and helping them do impressive work in GIS or quantitative history within six weeks,” Schwartz said. The skills they acquire, he added, prepare liberal arts students for more opportunities within the world of work.

As for future course work, he spoke enthusiastically about the prospect of applying GIS methods to study the AIDS epidemic and the effects of women’s education in developing countries.

Schwartz has arranged for several students to do summer internships with historical geographers in England and France. Last summer, he sent two students to Annecy, at the base of the French Alps, where his French colleague introduced them to the study of land surveys from the 1730s, the first of such studies in Europe. Sandy North will have an internship this summer at the University of Nottingham, using GIS to help analyze field data in a local history project. Schwartz noted that these opportunities are not only wonderful for the students, but also “useful for me to have my students get additional training.”

For more information about Schwartz’s work, check out his Web sites: and



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