Over the past few months, I have been wrapped up in projects as I work on finishing my Capstone Project for the Archives and Public History M.A. Program at NYU. I have chosen to forgo the traditional thesis paper in favor of a digital history project that will bring scholarship and attention to one of my favorite moments in American history, the Whiskey Rebellion. The project has a lot of moving parts – an interactive map, a responsive timeline, an audio tour, and more! – and I can’t wait to share the full thing with you when it’s done! In the meantime, here’s some of my thoughts on one of the most important digital tools I am using for the project, Neatline.
Neatline is a suite of add-on tools for the open-source content management system Omeka. Omeka, developed by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, has become the standard for digital humanities projects.
My main goal for this project was to map the important sites of the Whiskey Rebellion in one publicly-accessible place, so scholars and the interested public could better understand the geography of western Pennsylvania, and the way in which the Whiskey Rebellion played out on that landscape. I have always believed in the fundamental importance of place, especially when it comes to understanding history. The Whiskey Rebellion took place in an area that is almost as remote now as it was then – the very, very southwestern corner of Pennsylvania. The Rebellion occurred over the course of about four years (1791 – 1794), all over the corner of the state, and I felt it would be an asset to the scholarship if I could lay out the important places of the Rebellion on a map, to help further the understanding of this space and its history. So I turned to Neatline as a tool for creating an interactive digital map of the Whiskey Rebellion.
The learning curve for using Neatline is pretty steep, especially for someone like me who is a WordPress-lover and pretty unfamiliar with the Omeka platform. My first step included a lot of Googling, and a thorough reading of the Neatline Documentation. I was also lucky to have the guidance of the fantastic NYU Digital Studio, who really got me started with Omeka/Neatline and took care of the hosting for my site. Once I got the hang of it, I found it fairly intuitive to work with, and I am ultimately happy with the end result.
The hardest part of my mapping project was finding the places to begin with. To my knowledge, a consolidated list of the geographic points of the Whiskey Rebellion doesn’t exist, and many of these places are only referenced in primary source documents from the 1790s. It took me weeks, and a long trip to western Pennsylvania, to compose a working list of 10-15 important places of the Rebellion, and to confirm their geographic coordinates.
During most of this initial place-finding work, I felt like a detective. With only a few references to a place as it was in the 1790s, and perhaps a secondary source or two with a little additional information, I had to piece everything together to locate the place in the present-day. Most of the Whiskey Rebellion sites don’t exist today as they did back then (a few of them were actually destroyed during the Rebellion, the rest mostly just disappeared over time), so it’s a lot of trial-and-error, and sometimes all I could do was give my best guess. I used contemporary paintings and illustrations, letters, wills and deeds, and newspaper accounts to help me find the places. My best friend became the historical marker list for the State of Pennsylvania, since more than a few of the Whiskey Rebellion sites are marked by a (largely forgotten) historical marker. Ultimately, my proudest moment was discovering Couch’s Fort, a fort used by the Whiskey Rebels during the Battle of Bower Hill and a leftover of the French and Indian War. Couch’s Fort is now a McDonald’s (!).
Neatline comes with a variety of existing maps you can use as your base spatial layer, such as the suite of Google maps and some really good-looking Stamen maps. I chose to use OpenStreetMap because it was the cleanest and easiest. You also have the option of layering your own map into Neatline, and people have done really cool things with contemporary maps overlaid on the base layer map. For me, using a map from the 1790s didn’t make a lot of sense for my scholarship, even though it would have looked nice, since my ultimate goal is to help people locate these sites as they are today.
Mapping the coordinates in Neatline was tricky at first, because Neatline doesn’t recognize latitude and longitude coordinates or street addresses. Instead, Neatline uses a different language for vector geometry, called Well-Known Text (WKT). Luckily, I found an awesome tool to convert street addresses to the coordinate system used by Neatline – the Reed College Geocoding Application. This made plotting the coordinates easy peasy. As soon as I plugged them into the Geocoding App and learned the POINT information, I plugged it right into Neatline and the rest was magic!
My next challenge was linking multiple images and documents, as well as a rich scholarly description, to a single point on the map. Omeka relies on item records, and each item (such as a photograph) featured on Neatline should ideally be linked to its Omeka item record, which gives all the Dublin Core information for the item such as provenance and date. You can link Neatline points to their Omeka item just by clicking “Item” in the Neatline editor and plugging in the item name. However, I found this very limiting, because you can only link one item to each Neatline record. Instead, I decided to plug in items using HTML, embedding them in the body description and then just hyperlinking them back to their Omeka item record. This enabled me to embed multiple items into the pop-up bubble, in addition to a rich description of each place.
I also had (a little too much fun) with the point image, which I made into a tiny whiskey bottle. I did this just by playing around with the “Style” section on the Neatline editor, uploading my own image URL into the “Point Image” box.
Neatline also has the ability to overlay a timeline onto the map, with a plugin called SIMILIE Timeline. You can link each Neatline record with a temporal start and end date, and it will automatically be added to a timeline which is placed on top of the map. I initially made use of the SIMILIE Timeline plugin, but I found that it didn’t exactly do what I wanted it to do. If I had more CSS skills, I could have customized it to look exactly like I wanted it to, but unfortunately my CSS knowledge and ability is pretty limited. I decided to forgo the SIMILIE Timeline in favor of a different open-source timeline program, TimelineJS, which I embedded onto a different part of my website. (More on that in another post, coming later this month!)
You can view my complete Neatline map of the Whiskey Rebellion here. It’s still a work-in-progress, but I’d love to know what you think! I have had a lot of fun learning Neatline, and customizing it just enough to suit my purposes. If I had many more months and a little more CSS knowledge, I’m sure I could create something even more amazing, but it’s great to know that Neatline is available and I look forward to building more beautiful Neatline maps in the future.
Ever your cartographer,