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Fall 2005

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Idaho State University Creates Innovative Program in History and GIS

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Detail of city of Pocatello, Idaho, and vicinity, 1934, showing Central West Side, which has been nominated for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

The History Department at Idaho State University (ISU) has received approval from the Idaho State Board of Education to launch its Master of Arts Program in Historical Resources Management. In fall 2007, the first class of four to six students will enter the program, which combines an emphasis on the use of emerging technologies, especially GIS and related information technologies, with strong traditional historical training in content, research, and historiography.

All students will complete an internship that emphasizes skills in the appropriate use of historical sources; critical thinking; collaboration; and written, oral, and visual communication. Strong preparation in the organization and analysis of complex historical data will enable graduates to compete successfully for a wide variety of jobs with state, national, and international businesses and educational, government, and private agencies and to strengthen K-12 and higher-education teaching in an increasingly technological instructional environment.

ISU's program is currently the only one of its kind in the United States, and its creators "can find no similar history graduate program anywhere in the world," according to the program's development coordinator, Dr. Kevin Marsh. The program's emphasis on using digital technology to raise significant historical questions and analyze sources sets it apart from other applied history (also known as "public history") programs that rarely emphasize information technologies and from other GIS-related programs that are not generally linked with the humanities and social sciences. Its focus on historical analysis and methods makes this degree distinct from programs in historical geography.

ISU's GIS Training and Research Center, which is an Esri-licensed facility, will support the program. All of the faculty members involved in the program have been trained to use ArcGIS.

Geographically Integrated History

In recent years the field of historical GIS has developed a set of common techniques to solve problems both geographic (spatial) and historical (temporal). But program cocreator Dr. J. B. "Jack" Owens is quick to point out that "I refer to what my ISU colleagues and I do as geographically integrated history. Our practice likely goes beyond the standard emphasis on spatial analysis in geographic information science, which is often carried into the concepts of GIS history or historical GIS."

ISU's program can be characterized as geographically integrated history because students will learn to use GIS and related information technologies to manage historical resources of any type on the basis of type of resource, period, and location (both of the production of the resource and its current location) in standardized data formats. These resources can then be discovered quickly and utilized in whatever combinations seem appropriate to the user for data exploration, visualization, and presentation.

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Early trails and railroads in and around southern Idaho, 1942.

This type of management of historical resources will permit the aggregation of data on the basis of place; examples include relational databases of tabular data (including environmental data), digital images (of the built environment, objects, aerial and historic photographs, maps, manuscript documents, historic publications), transcriptions of documents, and audio and video materials. This form of data organization will facilitate data exploration, the enrichment of the context within which historical questions can be answered, and the linking of the place to other locations. Such research corresponds better (than to what is done now) to the new emphasis in the field, and especially in comparative and world history, on "connected histories," which involve concentrations on more complex, multivariate, and multidimensional historical processes.

"Historians can make significant contributions to the application of GIS," says Owens, "by pushing GIS software developers to adapt their products to our needs, particularly in terms of giving us better ways to deal with change through time." Moreover, he adds, information technology specialists are currently seeking solutions for the management of information that does not fit easily into a tabular database, and in this area, historians will have an opportunity to take the lead in discovering ways to represent the degree of uncertainty caused by the variable, incomplete, imprecise, "fuzzy" nature of historical source material.

Many examples exist of the kind of research the program will emphasize including the North American Religion Atlas ( of The Polis Center (, Salem Witch Trials Archive ( witchcraft/home.html), the China Historical Geographic Information System (, and the International Dunhuang Project ( The Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative ( lists hundreds of projects on its Web site as affiliates. However, ISU's program will be the only master's program to use these research methods to train historians.

Program Requirements

The program's unique curriculum requires graduates to acquire master's-level capability in both GIS and history, emphasizes program cocreator Dr. Laura Woodworth-Ney. For admission, candidates must have taken 18 semester credits of coursework in history at the upper-division level and ISU's upper-division course Principles of Geographic Information Systems or its equivalent. Beyond the required core graduate courses, which include Geographic Information Systems in Historical Studies, Cartography: History and Design, and Research Resources in History, master's students must take at least 12 credits of elective coursework in history to ensure that they meet the program's goal of graduating students capable of using primary sources and understanding contemporary historiographical debates.

  photo of the program's creators
The program's creators (left to right): Laura Woodworth-Ney, J.B. "Jack" Owens, and Kevin Marsh.

"Because the program deals with a rapidly changing field," notes Woodworth-Ney, "a student must complete all requirements for the degree within four years of the beginning of coursework." The program is designed for completion within two years but can be extended to accommodate part-time students.


To meet its goal of initiating the program in 2007, the History Department must procure additional resources through external funding. Marsh, a specialist in environmental and Pacific Northwest history, will serve as the program's development coordinator. The Department of History at ISU will seek support from agencies that have not been traditional targets for historical funding, including both public and private sources. Thus, the program creators request input regarding funding possibilities and will, through this process, chart a new path for the support of future programs.

For more information, visit or contact Dr. Kevin Marsh, assistant professor of history, Idaho State University (e-mail:; Dr. J. B. "Jack" Owens, professor of history, Idaho State University (e-mail:; or Dr. Laura Woodworth-Ney, associate professor of history, Idaho State University (e-mail:

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