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The Erie Depot in Kent, Ohio first opened its doors on June 1, 1875. It is stop No. 6 along "The History of Industry in Kent, Ohio" StoryMap walking tour. Photo courtesy of the Kent Historical Society & Museum.

The Erie Depot in Kent, Ohio first opened its doors on June 1, 1875. It is stop No. 6 along "The History of Industry in Kent, Ohio" StoryMap walking tour. Photo courtesy of the Kent Historical Society & Museum.

New digital tools give communities innovative and engaging ways to tell their own stories. In Kent, Ohio, a community-wide collaboration among Kent State University, Main Street Kent, and the Kent Historical Society & Museum uses story maps to teach residents about the town’s rich history. 

The realities of history may not change. But the ways in which people share tales of their past, and make sense of it for their present and future, continue to evolve. Communities mark their past by naming streets and buildings. They put up statues and recount local history on plaques. And they offer guides to their past on maps. Now new digital tools are expanding they ways to collect, tell, and share stories through mapmaking.

Recently James Fallows wrote about the potential of one of these new tools. That is the StoryMap platform created by our friends at Esri, the digital mapping company based in Redlands, California. From the non-technologists’ point of view, the most important breakthroughs are often those that make extremely complex and sophisticated systems seem simple and easy to use. Think of taking or sharing photos or videos on a mobile phone: Decades of innovation and engineering went into these systems. But a user just presses a button and captures the moment.

The idea behind story maps is similar: To build on an extremely complex worldwide network, to simplify the process of creating explanatory map-based presentations. This platform gives students, civic organizations, and other community members an opportunity to combine the best of storytelling mediums — writing, photography, video, audio, plus of course maps — and transform a story into an experience.

Kent, Ohio is one such community using this tool to tell parts of its story. It’s happening through community collaboration starting with a program called MapIt!

At Kent State University, the college’s library and geography department teamed up to create MapIt!, which, as its website notes, provides spatial data visualization, geographic information science (GIS), and cartographic services to the Kent State University community and Northeast Ohio community at large. Main Street Kent, a downtown revitalization organization, has collaborated with the MapIt! program to produce maps of the downtown areas.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Main Street Kent approached the MapIt! program to create something that would allow residents and visitors to learn more about the town in an outdoor, socially-distant capacity. That’s when Josie Myers, a second-year master’s student at Kent State University’s Department of Geography and graduate assistant in the MapIt! Program, got involved.

First, Myers designed the story map, “Public Art in Kent,” which a team from Main Street Kent created. With 15 waypoints, the story map “walks” a user through art and poetry banners, eight murals (including ones of Marvin Kent, the city’s namesake, and musician Joe Walsh donning a Kent State T-shirt), five sculptures (including one that survey’s the city’s history, another that represents the past and present of the Cuyahoga River, and a “Squirrel with Attitude”), and utility boxes adorned with poetry throughout Kent’s downtown district.

Next, MapIt! and Myers collaborated with the Kent Historical Society & Museum, which frequently works with Main Street Kent as well, to create a second map. “The History of Industry in Kent, Ohio” explores 10 landmarks that influenced Kent’s manufacturing and railroad history.   

“The Kent Historical Society was able to host an in-person version of the tour this summer since there was so much interest,” Myers said.

The digital experience begins with a brief written description of Kent’s settlement in the early 1800s, replete with an image of Kent from above in 1882. Story map users can scroll down to find instructions to begin the tour at Haymaker Farmers’ Market, which leads to the first stop — the Atlantic & Great Western Railroad Shops.

Scrolling along, users are moved through nine other stops along the tour, from the Stone Arch Bridge that supported Kent’s booming transportation needs to the Miller Lock Company that manufactured keyless locks in the late 1800s. Just like “Public Art in Kent,” all stops along the virtual walk feature written descriptions on the left of the page and complementary photographs and drawings — both historic and modern — on the right.

Jennifer Mapes, professor of geography at Kent State University, helped develop these two story maps. Mapes works in community geography, which she explains is “a subfield of geography that works with local community members and groups to use geography (especially mapping) to enact social and environmental change.”

Mapes said she is building a lab “to help expand this work and provide spatial data so that community members can more easily make their own maps.” She hopes to use mapping software to deepen the knowledge transfer between the university and the town.

With story maps on Kent’s public art and industrial history, Myers said the next walking story will focus on redevelopment efforts to make the city’s downtown more accessible and walkable. She said she expects to publish that map sometime this year.

We look forward to featuring more maps like the one in Kent and learning about the collaborative efforts of communities to tell their story in innovative ways.

Has your community used story maps to tell its history? We want to hear about it. Connect with us here.