Review: American Panorama

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Book & Geospatial Resources Review of American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History

Review by: Andrzej Rutkowski

American Panorama cover image to storymap
Cover Image: American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History

Nelson, Robert K., Edward L. Ayers, eds., Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. 2022. American Panorama: An Atlas of United States History. May 11, 2022.

American Panorama is a project based out of the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond. It is generously funded by the University of Virginia as well as the Mellon Foundation. In addition, Stamen Design has been an active partner from the beginning helping to design and create much of the code that drives the interactive maps. Calling itself a “historical atlas of the United States for the twenty-first century” that “combines cutting-edge research with innovative interactive mapping techniques, designed to appeal to anyone with an interest in American history or a love of maps” the site provides access to data, charts, maps, and much more. The project began in 2015 with four initial projects that focused on canals, slave migration, immigration, and the overland trails. Since then, an additional six projects have been added to the site for a total of 10 interactive and fully realized digital mapping projects. The projects highlight researchers from across academia and there is too little space here to say more about the researchers, students, and others who have worked on and created these projects. As a hub for digital scholarship, it demonstrates and reveals how these types of projects are deeply collaborative, multi-faceted, and in some cases multi-institutional. 

Each project stands alone as a resource and hub to learn more about a specific subject and time period. Though each of the individual projects provides guidance for how to interact and use the digital maps it might be argued that some experience and familiarity with digital maps and digital projects might be helpful for using each project. A Bloomberg article from 2015 highlighted the complexity of the maps and wrote that “to be clear, these are not the simple animated maps or hover-over statistical visualizations to which Internet trawlers are by now so accustomed. The Panorama’s plates are dense, like entire textbook chapters turned into interactive tools.” With the exception of some of the more recent projects, a very helpful step by step guide is provided in order to help users get started with navigating, understanding, and utilizing a map. Though incredibly helpful I think many first-time users would welcome a more updated set of tutorials that were video based and also helped to further contextualize the resources and data of each project.

Data visual on how to use the map
“How to use this map” data visualiztion

One thing worth highlighting about American Panorama is that beyond the obvious multiple and diverse audiences that can use the maps for research and generally learning more about history another potential audience are those in the digital humanities, computer programming, data science, and related areas. The code and process for creating the interactive maps has been made available via GitHub from the beginning of the project so anyone is able to go directly to the coding source and learn more about how to create and recreate these maps. This transparency for the process of creating such complicated and unique interactive and immersive web maps is a benefit to all researchers and teams who wish to create related work.

It can also be argued that almost all the projects provide meaningful ways to support and develop research around a diverse set of contemporary issues, especially in areas of structural racism, inequality, gentrification, and many more. For example, the Mapping Inequality project provides one of the most meaningful and comprehensive ways to begin studying and learning more about the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation Maps from the 1930s which have had a profound impact on the development and inequities that exist in urban American cities. Mapping Inequality also provides direct and straightforward data access to georeferenced maps and polygons. This feature is one of the things that sets it apart from other projects, even within the American Panorama site. Another project, Renewing Inequality, provides an in depth and captivating scrolling narrative that introduces researchers to the project through text, stories, photos, and maps. Other projects, such as the Executive Abroad, explore a very narrow and specific set of data, in this case, trips abroad by presidents and secretaries of state. The resulting map and visualization provide a beautiful window into seeing how foreign travel by the executive branch has changed over time. In all cases though, the interactive map elements are engaging and cutting edge. Working across different browsers (I used Firefox, Chrome, and Opera) and even on my phone.

Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America Map of the US
Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America Map of the US

Perhaps the one thing that is missing from the American Panorama project that could help new users understand the incredible set of maps and resources that are available to them is an overview page that guides new users through the projects and helps create linkages between them. Currently, the landing page for the site describes the project in a few sentences, provides access to the 10 current projects, and does little more in the way of giving an audience a way to get more context for why the project began in the first place and all the different ways in which the projects can be used for research, learning, and public dialogue. This is not a criticism of the project but more a thought about how to continue to improve accessibility to these wonderfully dense and rich projects – especially as more get added. I strongly recommend to anyone with any interest in history and maps to explore these projects and try to incorporate them into your own teaching and learning. There is much here to unpack, and each project is deserving of your attention.

Further Reading:

Review By: Andrzej Rutkowski
Visualization Specialist and Associate University Librarian
University of Southern California Libraries

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