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‘American Panorama’ Uses Digital Tools to Remap History

The Chronicle of Higher Education

04.10.2016

Most maps in atlases or textbooks are illustrative. They show you a pattern already known to exist. But the maps in American Panorama are exploratory. Like digital archives, they don’t tell users what to think. They invite people to ask questions.

For example: How did the slave trade fluctuate over time? Scholars have tended to think of Virginia as an exporter of slaves to other states, Mr. Ayers says. But click to the 1860 section of the “Forced Migration of Enslaved People” map, and you can watch mountainous parts of the state begin to import slaves on the eve of the Civil War.

“The slave trade is this pulsing, living, cancerous growth that is constantly changing its shape in response to the market,” says Mr. Ayers, 63, who is a historian of the South and a former president of the university. “To be able to see that playing out is something we’ve never been able to do before.”

American Panorama reimagines the historical atlas using digital tools. The project, built in collaboration with a firm called Stamen Design, is inspired by Charles O. Paullin and John K. Wright’s 1932 Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States. That book gathered a range of materials critical to the professional historian: nearly 700 maps on borders, voting, religion, industry, agriculture, demography, and the military.