Mapping Historical Connections
Since the invention of the smartphone, it’s not hard to imagine how a single object can connect people to each other. And yet we must admit that this phenomenon is not entirely new. In fact, one particular object that holds clues to an entire social scene dates back to almost two hundred years ago.
My internship deals with the digitization and exploration of the Amy Matilda Cassey Friendship Album. This album was started in 1833 and has entries dated up to 1856. It is housed at the Library Company of Philadelphia in their Afro-Americana collection. A friendship album has some of the qualities of a scrapbook or a journal but it is filled with art, poems, and, essays written by friends of the album’s owner. Amy Matilda Cassey was a free wealthy black woman living in antebellum Philadelphia. She was part of a wealthy minority within the free African American community, a rich and unique social scene.
This summer, I have been doing research on those who contributed to the album principally by going through Philadelphia directories to find the addresses of the various contributors. My end goal is to create an interactive map that will allow the viewers to examine this group of people and their environment through different lenses.
The historical framework I’ve examined is extremely relevant to how social networks grow and function today. It’s also an important piece to examining the little-studied history of free wealthy African Americans: the kind of privileges they had and struggles they had to face. Their community is one which is built on mutual support and need for safety in a Philadelphia that was hostile to their race. Examining the ways in which this support system was developed can help us to create a better picture of who these people were and how they contributed to their society.
After a lot of research and reading, I now understand a lot more about the Philadelphia black elite than I did at the beginning of my internship. However, it took me a good amount of time to become familiar with all the important names and connections that contextualize this album. The digital copy of the album that is available for free through the library company does not allow for this kind of understanding of contributors and connections. The digital edition in process that my map will be part of will allow for an easily accessible in-depth understanding of the people connected to the album.
In order to create this map, I am learning the various forms and functions of GIS or Geographic Information Systems. I have no previous experience with it so this has been and continues to be simultaneously exciting and intimidating work. Though I am not yet completely familiar with the tools, I have gained some preliminary knowledge of the nature of the main GIS functions.
GIS takes locations and situates them in space to make a map while also allowing you to include other information with those locations. For example you can create a map of Philadelphia’s parks which allows you to view the parks by when they’re open or the date they were inaugurated. GIS also lets you do things like overlay historic maps over modern maps and create various visual analysis of information like heat maps.
The functions I’m looking for in GIS enable the examination of the contributors’ various attributes. I am particularly interested in the ways in which the friendship album displays a unique social network. By mapping out the addresses of contributors and including their various occupations, dates of entry, and activist involvement we can create a spatial picture of a social network from the 1830s-50s.
I am well on my way to creating a finalized piece of this map for the final digital edition and I love that experience of discovery. The process of finding historical content and transforming it into data that I can examine and analyze on a map has been an exciting new process for me. I can only hope that the map that I create and share will be as eye opening for people who use it as it has been for me.