The Historical Atlas of Lowell hopes to fulfill several educational goals. The project's various maps introduce students to information about important historical events, developments, and people. Students learn facts. But this download of historical information is hopefully only the first step when encountering the maps. The maps not only present students with data about the past, they ask students what sense they make of that information, what questions the information raises. This is an open-ended process where students are encouraged (with the site's help) to interpret what they find in the maps. The maps are presented as a kind of archive, rather than a pre-made story. The maps might lead to any number of different conclusions. Meaning-making — not meaning-transference — is the educational philosophy of The Historical Atlas of Lowell project.
Interactive digital maps fit well with this philosophy. Maps are full of information that will always exceed what might be said about them. To study a map closely, one sifts through an immense amount of data that raise any number of questions: why were buildings built where they were built? why were streets named what they were named? why did a park exist in this location and a cementary in that location? why were the houses bigger here than there? where are the hospitals and banks? the schools and churches? and why are they where they are? why does a city exist here in the first place? how is it connected — in terms of tranportation, in terms of the exchange of information, people, and commodities — to other cities and places? In encountering the maps students first and foremost encounter such questions.
The Historical Atlas of Lowell's philosphy is bound up with interactivity. The interactivity of the maps allow users to move around, to click on images and further information, and to toggle between different historical maps from different time periods. There is no one way through the maps. Student have to make their own path, and in doing so, they see the information from various perspectives. Of course, the information in any given map is "curated" to a certain degree. It has been arranged around certain themes and connected to specific historical maps. But because users have so much freedom to interact on their own with the complex maps, the curation has no choice but to be incomplete and openended. The users have a great deal of meaning-making power. They also are encouraged to think about just how each map project is itself a product of careful curation. What's the angle? What information is missing? What would they add? How would subtractions and additions change the meaning?
The curation of the maps does always hope to keep one structuring idea close at hand: the curatoration reaches for ethical questions. The maps don't just provide historical information, and they don't just ask why history unfolded in particular ways, but they also turn to the ethical questions raised by the historical events. The maps return — usually implicitly rather than explicitly — to questions about values. What do the maps tell about the values of a particular society? What system of values goes into shaping what is seen through the maps? Again, the answers to such questions broached by the curation are not final. They are meant to stir argument.
These remarks have thus far focused on the student-as-user aspects of The Historical Atlas of Lowell. But the project also seeks to involve students as makers of maps. It employs relatively easy to learn Neatline and Omeka applications that allow students in the course of a semester to construct their own mapping projects. In doing so, students dive into the archive, and they move between exisitng scholarship and their own new research. They must make decisions about how to present information and develop questions using images, numbers, and words. They create projects which suggest pathways of interpretation, and then they experience others agreeing and disagreeing with their chosen directions. Mapping Lowell welcomes suggestions for future projects and seeks groups that would like to realize such projects.