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Project combines GIS technology, history

The Chattahoochee River Valley and town of Gainesville, as it appears today. the yellow thumbtacks represent the former homesteads of those people interviewed for the Historic Hall County: Spaces and Places project.

Based on the University of North Georgia's Gainesville campus, the Historic Hall County project aims to illuminate the history surrounding the Hall County area. Using historic aerial photographs, Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, and oral history interviews, the project connects the geography of Hall County with the stories it contains like never before.

Dr. Dee Gillespie, professor of history and a collaborator on the project, talks about the project's origins and how technology is changing the way we understand our region's history.

What is the Historic Hall County project and how did it come about?

The Historic Hall County: Spaces and Places project is a unique interdisciplinary research project that brings GIS technology and oral history methodology together. The project began in 2008 with the discovery of a rare collection of aerial photos documenting the dramatic changes to the northeastern Georgia landscape in 1955, 1957, 1973 and 1980. Using remote sensing and GIS technology, Dr. J.B. Sharma and students preserved the deteriorating photographs as digital photomaps.

The photomaps were then loaded onto the Google Earth platform, allowing website users to trace the ecological and geographic history of the region, most notably the construction of Buford Dam and creation of Lake Lanier in the 1950s. 

The digital photomaps tell part of the story of change, providing a visual record of geographic and ecological changes in the Chattahoochee River Valley. Through  interviews, we are able to "fill in the valley" with narratives of lived experience. Since 2009, I have worked with undergraduate students to conduct  interviews with local residents, recorded by undergraduate media studies students, under Professor David Smith's supervision.

What are the advantages of combining oral history with GIS technology? How does this help us better preserve history?

Pairing oral history interviews with the digital photomaps allows us to visually place these lived experiences in a specific place and time. As website users manipulate the photomaps to trace changes to the land, they can hear first-hand accounts of the effects of these changes for families living in the Chattahoochee River Valley. In addition, because our photomaps  document change from the 1950s into the present, we can extend the historical narrative beyond the initial effects of Buford Dam. Interviews with newer residents allow us to see that the effects of this dramatic geographic change rippled out well into the late 20th century, continuously influencing economics, demographics, and social life in the Chattahoochee River Valley. 

In 2011, we broadened the project to examine other events that have shaped the history of Hall County. Students conducted interviews with survivors of the tornado that destroyed downtown Gainesville in 1936, and most recently, students conducted interviews about the early years of Gainesville State College. Taken together, these  narratives create a complex story of mid-century modernization in northeastern Georgia. 

What is the significance of this project to UNG and the region?

This  project draws on the skills and talents of faculty and students in disparate disciplines. Through the project, undergraduate students in GIS, history, and media studies develop and directly apply skills in their particular field of study, but also see the connections between their research interests and other fields. 

The project also puts UNG at the cutting-edge of collaborative research projects in the physical sciences and the social sciences and humanities. Across the country, researchers are exploring how technology can preserve historical sources. Collaboration across disciplines raises new research questions and new approaches to present historical narratives to academic and broader audiences. 

Through oral history interviews, students have strengthened relationships between the university and the  Hall County community. The project directly involves local community residents, making them active partners in the historical preservation effort. Finally, the project creates a multi-layered and dynamic record of change over time in north Georgia. 

Please visit the Historic Hall County: Spaces and Places website:

For more information, contact:

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