Be welcome to this challenging and exciting world.
First: you're not alone. Many of us started with no more that enthusiasm and/or neecesity. If you're familiar with Java you have a extra bonus than the most of us.
The family of software you're looking for is called GIS (stands for Geographic Information Systems), but there are more specific tools as you can see.
A good point to decide a tool is to state the purpose, as well as the nature of the data to be represented. I would suggest you to consider the following questions:
- What kind of data will be represented?
- Which resolution it have? I.e. the spatial and temporal detail of the data
- How will be published? Paper or computer? In a single computer or at the WEB?
- Who are the target group (users)? They will interact with the maps? (panning, zooming, querying)
These questions are general for geographic data. Historical-geographical data needs more specific questions about the time, and this is a tricky question. However, for simple data, the general questions are a good starting point.
Tell us a little more about this questions and we'll be able to help you. In the meantime you also would check the possibilities using GoogleEarth, TimeMap (1), or gvSIG (2). This two last tools are free and open source, gvSIG is Java based. There are other commercial tools, but maybe this is enough for yout needs.
Daniel Orellana Vintimilla
Mercator Research Group
Universidad Politécnica de Madrid