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Website digitally maps county’s history

By Staff | Sep 23, 2011

Through geographic information system mapping, users can learn more about how the county was settled over time.

The Shepherd University Historic Preservation program will present a symposium on Oct. 29 at Shepherd to unveil progress of the West Virginia GeoExplorer Project.

Historic Program Coordinator Keith Alexander is spearheading the project along with the GeoExplorer’s brainchild Bill Theriault, deputy project manager.

In 1995, Theriault created a CD-based program called the Jefferson County Explorer Database. The program was published by the West Virginia Division of Culture and History and, according to Theriault, served as a model for this undertaking.

“This is an outgrowth of that,” he said.

According to Alexander, last summer Shepherd applied for grants through the West Virginia Humanities Council to proceed with the project. The grant, worth $15,500, has been effective during calendar year 2011, so the team of project members and volunteers are working to meet specific goals of the grant, Theriault said.

Theriault said right now, volunteers are gathering historic content focusing on Jefferson County because that is where his last project’s material centered around. That content will be developed through geographic information systems, or GIS, and searchable in a variety of ways, including, name, date and location.

“It’s more than simply a website with historical documents on it,” Theriault said.

“There are some really powerful tools,” Alexander said at a demonstration of GeoExplorer earlier in the month at the Byrd Center for Legislative Studies’ auditorium. “You don’t to to splurge for sophisticated GIS software. It’s all there.”

Theriault said through applying GIS to the study of history and creating a digital library of historical resources, users can discover materials in one central location instead of hitting the streets to find what they are looking for. And, the web service is free of charge.

“We’re offering ways to search digital material that’s not available at other sites,” he said.

Users can search the electronic database, currently housing 25,000 documents and counting of Jefferson County history, and Theriault said one of his favorite parts about the search process is the discovery that can happen.

“You start to see associations you didn’t see before, and that’s where discovery happens,” he said. “The more you start making those connections, the more it humanizes the history.”

The GeoExplorer project managers are still looking for volunteers to help with the project.

Shepherd student Jamie Stoner became interested in the project after hearing Theriault give a presentation on it at the university. Then, when Alexander made an announcement in class that they were recruiting volunteers for the Virginius Island Land Grant mapping at Harpers Ferry, Stoner said she was on board to help out.

“I jumped at the opportunity to work on the project because I was interested in working with GIS,” she said in an email interview.

As far as the research goes, Theriault said he sees individuals and groups becoming increasingly interested in different components of history around the county.

“We’re really focusing on the content getting in by being content-driven,” he said.

He said right now projects include mapping the original land grants of the county, tracing the growth of the towns in Jefferson County overtime and mapping Virginius Island.

Theriault said volunteers take on various roles on the project from research to programming roles. Stoner is involved on the historical research side of things.

“My main role in the project is transcribing land grant deeds and other relevant deeds pertaining to Virginius Island,” she said “The information from the deeds are then included on the online database and mapped and incorporated into GIS.”

For more information about the symposium or volunteering, contact Theriault or Alexander at wmtheriault@myactv.net or kalexand@shepherd.edu, respectively. The project can be seen live at www.wvgeohistory.org.

The symposium will take place from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Oct. 29 and is free and open to the public. Speakers include keynote speaker Anne Knowles, associate professor of geography at Middlebury College, as well as Alexander and more.

Sponsors and partners for the GeoExplorer project include Shepherd University and the School of Business and Social Sciences; Jefferson County’s Emergency Services Department, Planning Commission and Assessor’s Office; Harpers Ferry National Historic Park; Harpers Ferry Historical Association; Historic Harpers Ferry; the Town of Harpers Ferry; the Charles Town Historic Landmarks Commission; Berkeley and Jefferson counties historical societies; and American Public University.