GIS maps path between yesterday and today

For drivers who are direction-challenged, there\'s nothing like finding one of those new GPS units under the Christmas tree this year.

By Max Cacas

For drivers who are direction-challenged, there’s nothing like finding one of those new GPS units under the Christmas tree this year. And yet, it might interest you to know that your GPS is based on technologies used during the first voyages of Christopher Columbus.

That technology is called “geographical information systems”, or GIS. At its most basic level, GIS is a map that has layered upon it all sorts of other useful information. And we learned about GIS recently at the Library of Congress.

That might surprise a lot of people, but the fact is, the man credited with founding the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson, was himself a talented mapmaker and surveyor. He donated many personally-drafted maps along with his personal library to Congress in the early 1800s.

Today, Jacquie Nolan is a cartographer with the Library of Congress’ Geography and Map division who says her office is often tasked with creating maps and GIS-related products for members of the House and Senate, the Congressional Research Service, and for congressional committees.

“Occasionally, we also get requests for Geographical Information analysis,” she said in a recent interview, “and most of those are for legislative issues.”

We talked to Nolan at a seminar she and her colleagues gave for mostly Library of Congress staff on the 11th annual GIS Day.

It’s a chance for Nolan, and colleagues like mapmaker Nick Jackson to talk about some of their more interesting projects. Jackson described a current GIS project, related to the Inauguration of the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. “I’m working on a display for an upcoming February 12th ‘Lincoln Life’ display for the Library. They asked me for a map of his 1861 train ride from Springfield, Illinois when he was President-elect to Washington, D.C.”

Jackson explained that he has taken an 1861 railroad map, and combined it with present-day GIS map information to outline the route of Lincoln’s train.

He went on to say that an analysis of the GIS information confirmed a little-known aspect of Lincoln’s pre-Inaugural train ride.

He (Lincoln) learned of an assasination plot against him, that would be attempted in Baltimore. They finally convinced him between Harrisburg and Philadelphia not to make any more stops, and just go straight into Washington.

GIS can also be used to reconcile today’s high-tech computer maps with the legacy documents of the early explorers, according to the Library of Congress’ John Hessler, who works primarily with sailing maps from the Renaissance period, which historians have dubbed “The Age of Discovery.”

Hessler says he can take ancient maritime charts, and using what science has learned about changes in the earth’s magnetic field, can verify and place into modern context the sailing maps used by mariners from the 1400s and 1500s.

He also said some of his GIS work has verified the uncanny accuracy of a rare map that the Library of Congress obtained for $10 million in 2003.

That map predicted the existence of the Pacific Ocean at a time when European explorers had not yet sailed around South America.

On the Web:
Library of Congress – Geography and Map Division

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