Path of a Digital Humanities Project: Story Mapping Loyalists

By Leah Grandy

With a few breakthrough ideas, a group of people with the right skillset at the right place and time, and a dash of serendipity, the project which was to be known as “New Brunswick Loyalist Journeys” came together and became Esri’s story map of January 2018.

In the Microforms Unit at UNB Libraries, we are always trying to invent new ways to showcase how The Loyalist Collection can be utilized by a wide variety of researchers and to engage undergrad students with the depth of primary sources it holds. When we received a Canada Summer Jobs Program Student in 2016, Christine Jack, the Manager of the Microforms Unit, had the idea of creating biographies of loyalists who had settled in York County, New Brunswick.  These biographies would demonstrate how the primary sources found in The Loyalist Collection, which contains microform copies of over 600 records from institutions around the world, can be employed to recreate the life stories of refugees of the American Revolution.

storymaps

Project team at the time of the launch of the York County, New Brunswick phase of “New Brunswick Loyalist Journeys”. Left to right: Leah Grandy, Siobhan Hanratty, Zoe Jackson, Annabelle Babineau, Lilian Taylor, Christine Jack.

The project was born with the arrival of our grant student, Lilian Taylor.  We first tasked Lilian with compiling a spreadsheet of possible York County loyalists to profile by using the invaluable index found in Esther Clarke Wright’s book, The Loyalists of New Brunswick.  We also were kindly given research time from a Government Documents, Data, and Maps/GIS Unit Student Assistant, Annabelle Babineau, and together, the two students completed initial research on potential candidates for the larger, biographical project. The next step was to have each researcher, including myself, choose a few individuals who “spoke to them” from the compiled list of loyalists who.  Little did I know how vibrant and familiar my subject choices would become for me through the research process!  You can read more about the research steps followed and sources used for the project in a post from Atlantic Loyalist Connections.

Optimistically, the final plan for the project is to represent the lives of a variety of loyalists through ten individuals from each of the early counties of New Brunswick.  York County was a logical place to start, since that is where the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton and the Harriet Irving Library, and consequently the project members, are located.  When we engaged in York County research, we were able to explore on foot and by car locations with connections to our loyalists throughout the environs of the City of Fredericton.

The large majority of our research was completed using resources found within UNB Libraries, but a byproduct of the research process has been to form international connections with other institutions and to reinforce local relationships, such as the fantastic aid we received from the staff of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick.  Each of the individuals we researched came from a particular location, and local archivists, librarians, and academics were often eager to help fill out their stories so they might understand what had happened after the loyalist had left their original communities.

During this first phase of the project, we did not yet know we would be using mapping software to stage the biographies online.  The initial biographies were completed after the style of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, and we brainstormed ways to make the work available digitally.  We have had the privilege of working with a very talented Data and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) Librarian, Siobhan Hanratty, who was able to offer comprehensive technical support and guidance.  As a group, the idea arose that the loyalist life stories would be a perfect candidate for the creation of story maps using ArcGIS technology from the company, Esri, the world leader in GIS software. Story maps use technology to digitally combine maps, narrative text, images, multimedia, and interactive components to convey a story or present information; this is a fairly easy technology (Siobhan assured us of the Arts bent of mind) to master with a bit of creativity.  Esri recently posted a gallery of digital humanities story maps, accompanied by a blog post by Allen Carroll which featured “New Brunswick Loyalist Journeys.”

During the summer of 2017, we were able to add to our team UNB Work-Study student, Zoe Jackson, who proved to hold the perfect mix of artistic and technical aptitude to make our story maps a reality in time for a September launch of our first group of story maps focused on York County.  Of course, there were growing pains and much learning through trial and error, but we were very happy with our end result.

A group of fascinating  life stories really came to life via the story map medium.  The range of York County loyalists featured in the first phase of the project included a female loyalist, a Black Loyalist, a Catholic loyalist, New Brunswick’s first Surveyor General, prisoners of war, veterans of several provincial regiments, the first tavern keeper in Fredericton, a founder of the New Brunswick Anglican Church, and an abolitionist lawyer. All the researchers felt they developed a type of familiar bond with their unique research subjects.

We were also able to use the story mapping and research process to engage with both undergraduate and graduate classes from UNB’s Department of History.  As well, student assistants hired and funded to work on the project have gained valuable experience working with primary documents, research, palaeography, writing, publishing, and technology.  Happily, the project achieved our goal of capturing the interest of students, the public, academics, and the press.

The most difficult aspect in making the transition from a text-based biography to story map format was locating exact locations to place points on the map.  For example, the exact location of an individual’s house was not as much of a concern for a general biography, but for mapping purposes a representative point had to be chosen.  This required additional research that often proved difficult in a region whose geography has drastically changed since the addition of the Mactaquac Dam to the St. John River (see “Geo-Historical Sleuthing” on Atlantic Loyalist Connections).  Acquiring suitable images and associated copyright clearance related to each of the individual to illustrate the story maps, which are a highly visual medium, was also a significant challenge.  As well, the format of the story map we chose to use was best suited to a chronological retelling with smaller “chapters,” and often necessitated re-ordering of the biography.  Being a new format for academic projects, placing footnotes was problematic, but Siobhan and Zoe were able to come up with an ingenious solution by creating an additional story map containing footnotes for each loyalist which linked to their biography. With added assistance from a geomatics UNB Work-Study student, Tina Pangging, in 2018, we were able to make the presentation of the story maps more seamless and add many “journey paths” to the loyalists’ stories.

We are currently completing the research and writing phase to profile ten more loyalists who resided in Kings County, New Brunswick thanks to the addition of new and enthusiastic student assistants to the team, with an anticipated launch date of April 2019.  Having learned from our past trials, we feel that with this chapter of the project, we will be able to even better represent the intriguing life stories we have uncovered. The collaborative nature of this project, which brought together a range of students, staff, and faculty at the University of New Brunswick, demonstrates what can be accomplished when the right team comes together.


Leah Grandy hold a PhD in History works as a Microforms Assistant at UNB Libraries.

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About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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One Response to Path of a Digital Humanities Project: Story Mapping Loyalists

  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of October 14, 2018 | Unwritten Histories

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