For me, appreciating the heritage of a site is being able to understand the context of its location and where it fits in with its history. It makes you want to experience that site and imagine yourself a part of history. A good guidebook strives for this kind of understanding. You can do the same pretty easily online mapping programs like Google Maps, with a lot more functionality. I’ll show you how using a Google Maps Tours I created for the Cane River region of Louisiana, where I grew up.
Admittedly, this is a lot of fun to create but you’ll get the most out of the product by giving some thought to the goals you are trying to accomplish. What do you want this map to do for you and your heritage resources?
An online map can have a lot of really good uses: to drive heritage tourism, coordinate volunteers, and even illustrate a grant proposal. But each of those reasons require slightly different elements and you do not want to overwhelm your visitors with information they don’t need. Once your goals are set, here’s how you get started with the basics:
Step 1: Creating the Map
- Go to https://www.google.com/maps/ and sign in using your login from any Google service (gmail, etc). Get Started by clicking the red plus button in the lower right corner
- Give your map a title and description. The title should be a simple description of the site or collective area. Provide one or two sentences in the description that briefly state your area’s claim to fame. You’ll want to include a couple of external links that provide current authoritative information about the area you’re promoting.
- You have a map that saves automatically to the Google cloud!
Where possible, provide a link that includes contact information for touring your sites. If the site is private or otherwise not accessible to the public, note that as well.
Step 2 : Add Your Sites
As soon as your map is named, add several 5-10 placemarks to it right away by using the search field to find relevant locations. This will give you momentum for keeping the project going and spark interest from potential audiences and collaborators. If you have an address, just type it into the search box and click “search maps.” When the location comes up (and do check to make sure it’s correct on the map) click “Add to map …” and select your map from the dropdown menu. Press the Save button, and your first item is created!
That’s the easy way. Often heritage sites in remote areas do not have exact titles, addresses or even discernible zip codes (it happens!). If that’s the case, you’re going to have to locate it using the “Satellite” view in Google Maps. You’ve probably already used this function to find your own house. To enter Satellite view, just click on the button in the top right hand corner of your map. It may take a few moments to load.
Once you are in satellite view, it’s time to engage in a spy mission to spot your site.
- Go to the map you’ve saved and click the Edit button. Then simply click and hold on the map to move it in the direction you want to go.
- When you’re in the general area of where you know your resources is, use the slider bar on the right hand side of your map to zoom in (+) or zoom out (-).
- Grab the placemarker icon (looks like and upside-down teardrop) at the top and drop it on to your site. This will give your site GPS coordinates and place it on your map.
Step 3: Collaborate!
Increase the effectiveness of your map by adding collaborators, which is as simple as clicking the “Collaborate” link at the top of your maps and entering e-mail address of the best folks for the job. Start with a small group of people you trust and explain why your map is important as well as why you are asking them to collaborate on it. In my case, folks from my group have not only added important sites I didn’t know about, but also alerted me to sensitive sites (such as those with active archaeological excavations) where public attention might interfere.
Step 4: Blogify Your Text
Folks don’t want to read a treatise about your site within the context of an online map. Shoot for brief, descriptive and compelling narrative storytelling. In the short term, a couple of sentences is just fine.
By default the descriptions of your map items are in plain text. The rich text method offers ways to hyperlink text as in a word processing program. With your map still in edit mode, do this:
- Click the placemark. The info window will pop up.
- Choose Rich Text to type in your description text and use the “hyperlink” icon to add urls for related sites.
- After your text is in place, click the Done button. Remember, you can always go back and edit or add more later.
Step 5: Embedding Photos and Videos
With your placemarks and written description of your sites, you’ve done the bulk of the work to accomplish your goals. Now for the polish — those little elements that will captivate your end users. This starts with that bedrock principle of social media: embedding.
Assuming you have photos and videos on sites like YouTube and Flickr, here’s how to embed your media in each placemark description:
- Open your map and click the Edit button.
- Choose Edit HTML.
- Find the video you want on YouTube or Google Video. Copy the snippet of code that lets you embed the video into a website or blog.
- Paste the snippet of code into the description field of your placemark, line or shape.
- Click OK to save your changes.
Note: There is a bit of bugginess with Google Maps and embedding videos. Many folks have had the experience of the embed code for YouTube videos mysteriously disappear from their placemark info box.
Next Steps: Optimize with layers
Another way to get your videos into the appropriate spot (besides HTML) is to use the Video layer. The Video Layer uses the geocoding in your video and will show up after you input an item’s coordinates into the video settings. The video will pop up as an icon when someone clicks the “More …” button on the map and selects “Video.” This also works with photos and Wikipedia entries! Be aware that this could take several days to show up on your map.
Make Your Map a Heritage Icon
Instead of using the default placemark, you can use icons to jazz up the look of your map or to differentiate types of resources at-a-glance. I used a plantation home, a church, a gravemarker and an old building icon (among others) in the Cane River Map. Here’s how you do it:
- Find or make icons that best fits your categories and upload them to a photosharing site like Flickr or Google Drive (which is more integrated. It can be put anywhere the image has a url.
- Go to your map.
- Click the placemark you wish to replace with an icon.
- When the info window opens up, click the paint bucket icon.
- Click “More icons,” then “Custom Icons” and paste the url for the icon you wish to use. The icon will always show up in “My Icons” from now on.
The U.S. National Trust for Historic Preservation has famously used Google Maps Tours to visually document its Save America’s Treasures, Preserve America and National Heritage Area sites (see its “Historic Sites” map here. While maps on this scale can be overwhelming, they do make the case that historic sites are alive and well, and in likely in your neighborhood.
That’s all there is to it! Now you can embed your map into a web page, or share a link to it through e-mail and social media services. Here’s a preview of the Cane River Heritage Map I created. It’s a work in progress, but it’s a great way to help folks experience these heritage resources both virtually and in person.