Visualizing historical Durham using Google Earth

Trudi Abel, in History at Duke, wondered “How do they connect? The past and the present?”

CIT provided Trudi Abel with funding and student support to create digital versions of historic maps of Durham using Google Earth. Using high quality digital copies of maps from the late 1800’s, Abel worked with CIT staff to figure out the best methods for converting, importing and placing images as overlays into Google Earth. The “georectification” of these maps presented several obstacles, requiring the team to consult with local Durham mapping and historical experts to complete the placement and positioning of these maps.

Several of the resulting digital maps have recently been added to Abel’s ongoing project – the Digital Durham website. Google Earth files can be downloaded and opened on users’ computers for exploration. Visitors to the site can also access several high resolution screen captures of the map overlays without the need to open or use Google Earth. The resulting maps can also be used in Abel’s work with Duke and local high school students – providing a basis for student research projects. Audio pieces created on iPods, geotagged photography and even short video clips can be linked directly to their historical and/or present-day locations.

“I think these maps will help users visualize an industrializing city and gain a better understanding of the process of urbanization in this New South community.”

VIew the Digital Durham page for Sanborn 1884

VIew the Digital Durham page for Sanborn 1888


See a video excerpt from the presentation “Everybody’s Doing It: Web-based Visualizations and Mashups in the Social Sciences” which CIT consultant Shawn Miller gave at Duke’s Visualization Forum in September 2008. The full video is available from the Visualization Forum website.

Trudi Abel also presented about the project and the larger Digital Durham project at a Visualization Forum in March 2009. The video from her talk is available here.

Abel and Miller discussed future possibilities for the Digital Durham project at Duke’s Tech and New Media Tuesdays forum.


Articles about the project

The Digital Durham Project: Creating Community through History, Technology, and Service Learning by Trudi Abel

Duke News article: New Map Collaboration Helps Tell Story of Durham’s History article: Duke, Durham Merge Google Earth technology with historic city maps

Duke Research Blog: Seeing Through Time: Historic Maps, Google Earth, and the Transformation of Durham

Independent article: What Google Earth doesn’t show you: A small movement of alternative mapmakers seek to revolutionize our understanding of the Triangle and the world

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