In “Introduction to Digital History” at Brock University, students gain experience working with original primary sources as historians, and transform those historical sources into digitally-accessible and interactive platforms such as the Niagara Lives WebGIS.
In Winter 2019, students worked with digitized copies of the 1900 tax rolls for the city of St. Catharines, Ontario, from 1900. These tax rolls, provided by the St, Catharines Library and digitized at Brock’s Special Collections and Archives, are a form of census and contain a wealth of socioeconomic data, such as names, addresses, ages and occupations of householders (and their families, in some cases) as well as fiscal data on the tax assessments attached to these residences. One interesting element of these tax rolls is the degree to which they reflect the early twentieth century in Canada: included as columns in the tax rolls are counts of livestock at residences, such as horses, cattle, and sheep, as well as separate columns for male and female dogs. Census entries also listed the household’s religion, the number of children (subdivided into age groups) and the total size of the family residing there.
During class, 36 students worked in 18 teams of two to transcribe the tax rolls for 1900 into a MS Excel database comprising 30 fields of attribute data for each census entry. Each team was responsible for approximately 240 census entries, which resulted in a final count of approximately 3700 households held by individuals and institutions such as banks, utilities and civic organizations. Because the city of St. Catharines renumbered its downtown addresses in the early 1930s, a team of 6 students worked parallel to the larger group in Brock’s Special Collections and Archives to concord old and new addresses using Fire Insurance Plans from 1913 and 1935. The new addresses were matched to the old addresses in the Excel database.
When the database was complete, students reviewed each other’s entries for accuracy and consistency, and used ESRI ArcGIS to geocode the census entries by their addresses. Two teams of two students each then constructed the website and the accompanying WebGIS app.
In the process, students gained technical and analytical skills, working with database systems to help uncover patterns in a large dataset derived from primary sources. As their final project students conducted spatial analyses of the census data using the map they built in ArcGIS online, creating spatial profiles of religion, occupation and household wealth, among other variables, across the city of St. Catharines during a fascinating period of its history.