Mapping History at the University of Illinois, Innovation Fund Report

Mapping History at the University of Illinois (MH@UI)
May 1, 2017

Submitted by:

  • Ellen Swain, University Archives, SLC Archivist
  • Marci Uihlein, School of Architecture, Assistant Professor
  • James Whitacre, Library, GIS Specialist

Project Website:

Proposal, December 2015:

Mapping History at the University of Illinois: a Digital Humanities Project


In January 2016, the University Library generously funded the Mapping History at the University of Illinois (MH@UI) project, a sesquicentennial web portal featuring three components:  a history of campus through eras and themes illustrated with maps and GIS technology, student research, and primary sources; a digital archives of campus, community and county maps, plans, drawings, and blueprints; and an interactive timeline of the campus’ built environment.

The underlying value of the map portal is in its potential as a teaching and discovery tool that will highlight and facilitate research on the history of campus and community.  Over the past year, multiple campus departments and units, faculty and students, and community organizations have collaborated with the project team on its development.

Components of the Portal:

Campus History

The project team hired John Franch as the Principal Researcher.  With John’s help, the team divided the history of the university into seven eras:

  •  The Early Years, 1867-1904
  • The James Administration, 1904-1920
  • The Jazz Age, 1920-1930
  • Depression, War, & Cold War, 1930-1953
  • The Baby Boom & Beyond, 1953-1979
  • The Ikenberry Years, 1979-1995
  • The Recent Past, 1995-present

During his time with the project with the allotted funding, he wrote historical narratives for the first five eras. Several themes were found to span each era including:

  • Administration
  • Academics
  • Campus Architecture & Planning
  • Diversity
  • Student Activities
  • Traditions & Sports

Some historical time periods had other significant issues that needed to be explored such as World War I, for example, and these special themes were included in the project work.   Each of the five narratives demonstrates the richness of the University’s history through the text and interactivity.  Photos, maps, digital versions of books and primary documents are within each section.  This has involved combing through archival material and then digitizing it to make it accessible to the website readers. Both the Project Researcher and the Archivist for Student Life and Culture have been involved with finding and digitizing this material.

Students in the Department of History and School of Architecture have provided great content for the project.  This semester, the team partnered with the Department of History to offer mapping internships to undergraduates for course credit.  Three students will complete Story Map tours of campus for the Early Years, James Administration and Jazz Age eras in the next week.  Joe Porto, Student Life and Culture (SLC) Archives graduate hourly student, supervised the internships and developed four Story Maps of his own for the portal.  In addition, Marci Uihlein taught a James Scholars course in which students created a physical model of University Hall; a Story Map on the history of Engineering Hall; and a research paper about and sketchings of the first University building.  These student works are/soon will be integrated into the map portal.

The project team hired free-lance web designer Kurt Bielema, owner of SingleStereo, to design the website both in terms of graphics and also organization.  The main website has been established as have pages for each of the main components of the project, eras, and standalone pages.  Kurt has been invaluable in providing the clarity to the presentation of the project and in making this rich material accessible to our readers. The project website, as will be discussed later, is still underdevelopment, though it has been made active and resides in its designated space within the library web structure.

Map Digital Archives

Over the past fourteen months, approximately 525 maps, drawings, blueprints, slides and images related to the University, Champaign-Urbana and Champaign County were digitized for inclusion in the Library’s Digital Library (DL) and the map portal.  Archives staff are working on metadata and anticipate that all materials will be available in mid-May, although work remains on copyright permissions for some maps (mostly from the Champaign County Historical Archives).

Maps, plans, drawings, blueprints, and images date from the 1850s to the present and relate to: wayfinding, campus and community planning, city zoning, political districting, transportation, humor and cartooning, student housing, recreational offerings, faculty club outings, and more.   The new digital archives contains approximately 390 items from University Archives; 75 maps from the Map Library; and 65 maps from the Champaign County Historical Archives collections.

The project team worked closely with Conservation, Digital Content Creation (DCC) and Preservation units to accomplish this major feat.  Challenges included coordinating transfer and tracking items (before and after digitization) at a time when DCC was overhauling its procedures and workflow processes and the Digital Library was/is in constant development.  We very much appreciate the work these units undertook to pull off this massive project  — particularly Cher Schneider and her graduate students, Angela Waarala and team, and Kyle Rimkus, Trish Lampron and team.  In addition, University Archives staff members Anna Trammell, Bethany Anderson, Catalina Hernadez, and Spenser Bailey are key contributors to metadata development and file management.

Interactive Maps

In order to create the interactive web maps, three significant geospatial datasets needed to be created. The datasets are a collection of historical scanned georeferenced maps of campus, historic and current building footprints, and 3D models of prominent buildings on campus. These datasets provide the backdrop for many of the web maps and Story Maps created. Additional geospatial datasets were, or will continue to be, created and developed as needed for each web map or Story Map.

All historical maps digitized for the Map Archives were assessed to ensure they met specific criteria to be georeferenced. Maps meeting the criteria were georeferenced using ArcGIS Desktop and then processed to create an imagery map service for use in web maps. Though this process is automated as much as possible, georeferencing scanned maps is a manual process that is very time-consuming. To georeference a map requires about 2 hours of specialized GIS training and each map takes about 15 minutes to georeference after completing the training and practicing a few. The time commitment and skills needed are non-trivial and proved to cost much more than expected.

We were able to fully complete 50 maps, with an additional 25 georeferenced waiting to be finalized, and many more still needing georeferenced. We employed Richard Thompson, a GA from the Scholarly Commons, who georeferenced about  30 maps, and Joe Porto, a student worker in SLC, who georeferenced about 15 maps. James Whitacre completed the rest to date. After Richard graduated, we were low on funds and had trouble finding students who had the skills necessary to step into georeferencing right away. That is when we trained Joe in georeferencing and also had James attempt to finish the scanned maps. However, other project priorities and lack of resources have resulted in the dataset being incomplete, though we hope to continue adding georeferenced maps to the final collection as time goes on.

The historic and current building footprints dataset is nearly complete, though may never be fully complete due to the dynamic nature of the University’s changing landscape. This dataset is also unique because it is time-enabled, which allows users to view the footprints on a map as they were for the specific year being shown when using an embedded time slider. To create this dataset, any building which had additions (or subtractions) to its footprint required multiple versions or features. It also required using the scanned historical maps and historical aerial imagery to help locate demolished buildings and to see how current buildings changed over time. Though we have many buildings with dates for when they were built, we used a document created by John Franch for another project to help determine when additions were added to buildings.

The University’s Facilities and Services (F&S) graciously shared their buildings footprints geospatial data, which was used as a starting point for creating the historic and demolished building footprints. Many of the minor buildings, such as sheds, bus shelters, and some private buildings were removed from the original dataset. Each building was then analyzed and additional footprint features were created for each addition, as well as for each building that no longer exists. The process was again very arduous as each footprint needed to be compared to historic maps and manually modified or drawn. Additional data, for example about architects and former building names, were also added to the dataset not included in the original F&S dataset, but which were included in John Franch’s document. Richard Thompson helped organize John’s document into a tabular-data format, while James Whitacre created all the features and performed quality control checks on the data using ArcGIS Desktop.

The last major geospatial dataset was the 3D models of buildings. More than 250 SketchUp models were provided by F&S that student interns created over the years. We then had an architectural graduate student, Justin Palmer, assess many of the models and update them as needed. Justin also created new 3D models, historical versions of some buildings, and videos showing the changes of select 3D buildings over time. We were also able to test some of the models for use in web maps and have had great success, though finalizing the dataset is not complete. Additionally, the team for the Campus Master Plan gave this project access to their three-dimensional map. While we have many of the contemporary buildings modeled, including the F&S models, the Master Plan Models, and those by Justin, many of the historic ones are yet to be completed.

The final stage is to create web mapping applications to visualize the geospatial data over time and to enrich stories about specific places and event on campus. The primary web map is an historical timeline of buildings and scanned historical maps where users can view how the campus looked at different year and also see where historic buildings existed. As the geospatial data compilation progresses, we will expand the historical timeline map to include more buildings –  such as fraternities, sororities, and other significant private buildings – and other non-building features – such as athletic fields, gardens, and sculptures. Additionally, we will continue to develop a 3D mapping application for users to fly-through the campus at different points in time.

Story Maps created include a Fraternity and Sorority tour from 1912-13; a World War I tour highlighting how buildings were utilized to support the war effort; and an in-depth look at Illinois Field. As mentioned above, we have also partnered with the History Department to give student interns the opportunity to create Story Maps about specific places or topics for users to further explore, including campus tours during three eras.  James Scholars created a Story Map concerning the history of Engineering Hall last semester and Joe Porto is working on one which outlines where African American students lived in the Champaign-Urbana community during the segregated 1930-50 period.[1]   Seven Story Maps are completed; Joe Porto will complete the African American housing Story Map over the summer.

Funding/Moving Forward:

As this project has come to fruition, we have come to understand that it was much more ambitious than we had originally planned.  Although the project team and others have logged many, many (many) hours into this project, it is not completed.  Table 1, below, indicates the resources that have been dedicated to the project.



Funds or In-Kind
Library Innovation Fund $27,320

Additional $1680 for drawing work

Student Life & Culture Archives $10,000 + $3,600 (This AY Year)

In-Kind metadata work, primary source selection and scanning

F & S  583 Models, Drawing Retrieval
Campus Master Plan Team Schematic three-dimensional model of Campus
Department of History 3 undergraduate interns — story map development for course credit
School of Architecture $4,400 + $1,000 (This AY Year)

James Scholars class project contributions

Conservation & Digitization of Materials In-Kind Digitization and Conservation




Table 1 – Funding for Mapping History at the University of Illinois, April 28, 2017.

The team is committed to a much higher level of completion of the project than it stands now.  Each member as well as volunteers continue to produce content for the project. However, there are some areas that are in need of funding.  They are described below.

Further financial needs

Mapping University History

  • Project Historian, $22,828.00. Research is needed to complete the last two sections and include more detailed research on the faculty and university administration over the whole project. We estimate the work to be:

○     Ikenberry:  160 hours @ $35 per hour (+ 8 % benefits):  $6,048

○     Recent Years:  120 hours @ $35 per hour (+ 8% benefits): $4,536

○     Faculty/Administration sections for each Era: 280 hours at $35 per hour (+ 8% benefits): $10,584

○     Health Benefit $115 per month (x 4 months)

  • Virtual University Hall Tour. This is an proposed computer model to provide site visitors a virtual experience of touring one of our oldest buildings:  $1,200.00

Campus Map Timeline

  • Architectural Modeling, $5,600.00. This modeling is related to the historic buildings on campus.  There are many buildings that have had additions or ones that have been demolished that have not yet been modeled.  This will take archival research in addition to architectural rendering skills.

○     Archival Research

○     Building Architectural Model

○     Architectural Rendering

○     Architecture Grad. Student @ $15 for 15 hours per week

  • GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Modeling:  $4,082.00

○     Grad hourly 180 hours at $21 per hour, 18 weeks (+ 8% benefits):  $4,082.00


Project Public Interface

  • Designer: $2,000.00. There is a good deal of content that needs to be incorporated into the project.  These funds will allow us to continue to keep the project graphic designer on the tam.

Estimated Total Need: $32,000.00

This amount– $32,000– is overwhelming, but we are moving forward through partnerships on campus and pursuing funding opportunities.

In Fall 2017, we again will rely on history student interns to create Story Maps for the 1930 to 1979 time periods.  We are partnering with a Geography class taught by Professor Julie Cidell for her to incorporate this project as part of her class work.  In addition, we are exploring ways to collaborate with the Public History Cluster (IPRH) to enlist and work with students on the project.  Furthermore, the University Archives is partnering with the Department of History on Sesquicentennial celebration projects.  We are investigating ways to share student positions to support both our projects in terms of writing, selecting, and scanning content for history eras, 1930-recent years.  In addition, there are themes we hope to pursue in coming years including a focus on faculty and innovation.

Joe Porto will become James Whitacre’s graduate assistant in the Scholarly Commons in fall.  He will be a tremendous asset for GIS production work.  Lastly, the Business School has expressed interest in  fabricating 3D historic models through its Maker’s Lab.

Concluding Thoughts

Mapping History at the University of Illinois has unlimited potential and we understand that  it is critical that the team launch the portal during the Sesquicentennial celebration.  Thus, we plan  a public launching of the project in September 2017.

This launch will entail a publicity outreach to campus media, local press outlets, and a launch event.

Our goals for the project at the September launch include:

  • Complete basic metadata work for map archives
  • Complete selection, scanning, and upload of primary source content for 3 eras: 1920-1979 (for total of 5 eras, 1867-1979)
  • Complete a customized interactive web mapping application to view buildings, historic campus maps, and other significant historic places over time
  • Complete an interactive 3D mapping application highlighting historic changes over time with the ability to also fly-through campus

Beyond the Sesquicentennial, the project, designed to be an ever-evolving research portal, will continue to grow as we work on GIS and historical content and partner with faculty, classes and the community to build its research and teaching usefulness.  As mentioned above, the project team will continue to seek other funding opportunities in order to reach our original intentions for the project.  We will provide an update report to the Executive Committee in September 2017.


[1] Over the past year, the Student Life and Culture Archives collaborated with the Chancellor’s Office on production of the campus documentary A Home of Their Own, a project focused on the role the African American community in Champaign-Urbana played in housing UI African American students.  Joe Porto and Ellen Swain worked with four of the interviewees to gather stories and data about where and how students lived.  Joe is building a Story Map based on this information and supporting archival materials for the MH@UI project.  His Story Map will be featured at the documentary opening event in Fall 2017 (which also is part of the Archives Sesquicentennial Speakers Series).