College of LAS « Illinois

Mapping campus history

Students play key roles in making campus history interactive

Several history students played a key role in the Mapping History project at Illinois, which provides an interactive history of campus. (Image courtesy of University Library.)
Several history students played a key role in the Mapping History project at Illinois, which provides an interactive history of campus. (Image courtesy of University Library.)
In 1915, Illinois sports were practically unbeatable. The university’s baseball, football, basketball, and track teams all won Big Ten championships. The mood on campus must have been a far cry from 1918, however, when nearly every building on campus—including some Greek houses and university buildings that remain in service today—served as a hospital during a deadly flu epidemic.

Many rich and meaningful campus stories such as these might be lost if not for concerted efforts to preserve them. One happened this semester with the launch of the Mapping History project, which, with the help of faculty and multiple history student interns and alumni, puts access to the past just a couple clicks away.

The project, housed at the University Library, serves as a digital guide to campus history. Stories written by university historian and archivist John Franch narrate various eras of the university’s existence, accompanied by an interactive map component and a map archives section.

“A lot of people on this campus observe passively that there is a lot of history. Like you might notice, ‘Oh that building looks really old, I wonder why it looks so old?” said Joseph Porto (BA, ’16, history) graduate student in library and information sciences who is deeply involved in the project. “But the Mapping History Project shows people that history of the buildings, how they’re related, the culture behind it, or why buildings used to be there that aren’t there anymore.”

Maps in the Mapping History project date back to the earliest days of campus, and even before it was called the University of Illinois. (Image courtesy of University Library.)
Maps in the Mapping History project date back to the earliest days of campus, and even before it was called the University of Illinois. (Image courtesy of University Library.)
While the narrations touch on topics such as administration, academics, diversity, student activities, and more for each time period, both the interactive maps and archival maps allow the user to see firsthand how the structure of campus has changed drastically over the years.

In the fraternities and sororities interactive map and timeline of 1912-1913, for example, it’s easy to see that many of the Greek houses were once located along Green Street. In other words, forget the multitude of restaurants and shops lining Green Street today — if you wanted a bite to eat in the early1900s, downtown Champaign was your destination.

The Mapping History project began as an idea put forth by Ellen Swain, student life and culture archivist at the University Archives, to celebrate the university’s Sesquicentennial. The idea swiftly became a reality with help from many undergraduate and graduate students such as Porto. Marci Uihlein, professor of architecture, was also instrumental in bringing about the History Mapping project.

James Whitacre, geographic information systems specialist for the Scholarly Commons at the University Library, worked heavily on integrating and creating the interactive maps to accompany the other aspects of the website. Using this technology, Whitacre, Porto, and the rest of the team was able to bring the university’s history into the 21st Century.

“There were cool things to dig up, including actual artifacts, old videos of baseball games, old trophies,” Porto said. “When I was working in the archives, I was using mapping software to create the interactive maps. It was really cool to use cutting-edge software but scan old archival resources at the same time.”

Brandon Nakashima, senior in history and student intern who spent time researching the Early Years portion of the website, also said the GIS component of the website is exceptionally impressive.

“If you look at the map, it’s very interactive and there are very complicated components that make it work,” Nakashima said. “For example, James Whitacre was able to put on a map from the 19th century onto a modern day map, which is how we knew which buildings were where for each time period.”

During Nakashima’s research, he learned many stories about the university’s history, such as the fact an on-campus golf club previously used the doorframe of Noyes Hall as their ninth hole.

However, an overall look at the university’s past changed his perspective.

“One of the things about the early years of the university is that it was always struggling,” Nakashima said. “The buildings were always catching on fire, or a storm would come. There was very little hope that the university itself would last and it did. I think it’s very important to remember the story, remember the struggle because we’re all here today because of people who had to go through a lot to get the university going.”

Several other history undergraduate students worked on the project, including Mindi Zhang, Dai Hongyuan, Austin Justice, Chris Jenig, Bennett Stewart, and Spenser Bailey. Tara Chattoraj, majoring in physics, and Nico Hsu, a graduate student in architecture, and other James Scholars in architecture also contributed. Porto said students would be involved in the future. While the project was launched in response to the university’s 150th anniversary, Porto mentioned that it will exist beyond that.

“The Mapping History project is something we are looking to keep ongoing and involve undergraduates on board to push the project forward,” Porto said.

Samantha Jones Toal
12/8/2017

Related Topics

  • History
  • Campuswide
  • Student Life