Armchair map fiddling for beginners

As the winter wind hurtles down Nottingham’s streets, upsetting wheelie bins and rattling letterboxes, my mind naturally turns to armchair historianism. For the amateur history sleuth such as myself, the array of free resources online is thrilling. Here’s a little guide that could easily and quickly be applied to your own neighbourhood or favourite place to do some revealing investigation.

The first stage for me is to mooch around a modern map of Nottingham on Insight Mapping. I find a building that either bears a curious name or demonstrates an unsual shape, or a street that seems too short or seems to end too abruptly. In my experience, such things generally reflect echoes of the past. Another good starting point is a building that you regularly glimpse in your day-to-day life and sparks curiosity within you. Once I’ve got a view of the map with my feature in a roughly central position, I press Print Screen on my keyboard, then open (a superb piece of image editing shareware for Windows) and Paste the screen grab into a new layer of a new document.

I return to Insight and change the map type to Historical. A small wait follows, and Insight generates a historical view of the map I was just viewing. It’s important not to move the map around at this point. I use Print Screen again on the Historical view, flick over to (you could use Photoshop, or any image editor that allows the use of layers) and paste the historical screen grab into a new layer in the same image over the top of the modern map.

By this stage, I have 2 layers in my document – layer 1 is the modern map, layer 2 the historical map. My brain’s easily confused, so I feel obliged at this stage to label the layers. By toggling layer 2’s visibility on and off (by ticking and unticking a box) I can compare the buildings and streets in the two versions of the the selection very directly. I prefer to do this on an image editor as the alternating between layers is rapid, whilst performing the same task on Insight can be a little clunky and labourious, depending on the speed of your internet connection. allows a gradual fading, too, by double clicking on the Layer and then using the Opacity slider. This gives a gentler transition between the two views. I’ll amuse myself alternating between the two versions of the maps for a while, then move onto the next step.

In, I add a third layer on top of the other two. I label this one ‘markers’. I use the Text tool and/or the drawing tools to place little markers over features in either map that I think are noteworthy. I then go back to toggling between the modern and historical maps, with the markers I’ve placed in layer 3 helping me to get my bearings and understand the extent of changes. A basic example would be drawing a red line along a now-vanished street showing on a historic map. By turning-off the Historic layer, I could then see where this street would sit in modern times. This is a simplistic example, but hopefully you can see the possibilities for your own projects.

In the next post we’ll expand on our map fiddling to include photo juggling. And yes, that’s the technical term.

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