The most important skill students can learn about maps in the humanities is spatial literacy. How does one read a map? This can mean quite literally introducing students to the basic conventions of maps. But more importantly it means learning how to read maps the past as primary sources, and how to read maps from scholars as secondary sources, and how to read texts with an eye to their spatial contexts.
What do maps do?
I like to begin my first session on maps by asking students to bring a map (whether digital or print) that they have used to class. I then ask them to show it to the class and explain what about the map has value or meaning to them. Students may or may not bring a wide variety of maps. In fact, it might be pedagogically useful if they all bring one kind of map. The vast majority of students are familiar with Google Maps, so you can be guaranteed at least one person will bring that map.
I try to direct students to a few basic principles about the map. You might ask the students to think more carefully about the Google Map than they are accustomed to. What does this map do, and how? What are the main features of the map?
- The map has layers. The map proper, or base layer, shows several different layers (though the user cannot disaggregate them) such as land use, buildings, street names. We could choose several different base layer maps, such as street or satellite view. (Later we will use MapBox to create our own base layer.) The base layer seems natural through design and repeated use. But the ability to switch the base layer demonstrates how constructed everything about the map is: a map for cars, a map for bikes, a map of public transportation, and a map of the terrain for walking are entirely different. There are many other layers too: real-time or typical traffic, photographs from users, reviews of businesses, satellite imagery.
- The maps pans and zooms. This seems obvious, but it is the most remarkable thing about the map. The ability of the map to change its scale, from the building to the globe (or a Mercator projection of the globe) is the most humanistic thing about this map, because it lets us think at several different scales.
- The map is aware of the user. I can click the “location” icon and send my current position to the map. This feature is even more powerful when the map is mobile.
- The map is utterly unaware of time.1 Every piece of the map is presented in the eternal present. After all, its chief value is that it does not go out of date, like a Rand McNally atlas. But we have no way of seeing how things were different in the past.
- The map is open for addition, but not for amendment. We are able to use the base layers, and even add to the reviews. But the actual map itself is controlled by the Google corporation. (We can compare this Google map to the Open Street Map version of the same place.)
- The map forces everything to a spatial grid. This is the most basic concept about the map, though it is below the surface. What makes permits the map to coordinate all of this information is, quite literally, a set of coordinates. This is the central concept in mapmaking in the humanities. As Stephen Robertson explains about his map of Harlem:
GIS organizes and integrates sources on the basis of their shared geographic location … . Geospatial tools involve not only maps but also databases. The power of such tools is that they use geographic location to integrate material from a wide range of disparate sources. “What is important about assigning a geographic reference to data,” Karen Kemp points out, “is that it then becomes possible to compare that characteristic, event, phenomenon, etc. with others that exist or have existed in the same geographic space. What were previously unrelated facts become integrated and correlated.”2
From the standard map to a varieties of maps
The next step is to become familiar with as wide a variety of maps as possible, including digital maps and analog, maps that have been made by scholars and maps that have not. Below is a list of online mapping projects. In a group, look through as many of these projects as you can. Your aim is to gain familiarity with projects involving maps and mapmaking, both by scholars and on the web generally.
- American Migrations to 1880
- Atlantic Networks Project
- Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States
- Counties Blue and Red, Moving Right and Left
- David Rumsey Map Collection
- Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations
- Digital Harlem
- Digital Harrisburg
- Flowing Data: Coffee, Pizza, Burgers
- Geography of the Post
- Going to the Show
- Hestia: Home for Geospatial Analysis of Herodotus’s Histories
- Hidden Florence
- Histories of the National Mall
- History Pin
- Holocaust Geographies Collective
- How Your Hometown Affects Your Chances of Marriage
- Locating London’s Past
- A Map of Baseball Nation, Baseball’s Second-Place Favorites: Go, Mets
- Mapping the Republic of Letters
- Mapping the State of the Union
- Mapping Texts
- Map of Early Modern London
- Mapping Gothic France
- Mapping the Medieval Townscape
- Mapping Poverty in America
- Midterm Elections
- Murder Map
- NYPL Map Warper
- Stop and Frisk is All But Gone from New York
- Railroads and the Making of Modern America
- Redlining Richmond
- Ben Schmidt, Mapping ship logs
- Spread of U.S. Slavery, 1790–1860
- Stanford Spatial History Project
- Travelers in the Middle East Archive
- Visualizing Emancipation
As you look through these projects, consider the following questions or prompts.
- Create a taxonomy of maps. What categories do these maps fit into? You might consider the purposes of the maps, their audience, their interfaces, among other axes of comparison.
- What is the grammar of mapping? In other words, what are the typical symbols that mapmakers use, and how are they can they be put in relation to one another?
- Which maps stood out to you? Why? Which maps were typical?
- Which of these would be good examples to use with students?
- Which maps were the worst? What made them bad?
- How do scholarly maps differ from non-scholarly maps?
- What kind of data is amenable to mapping? What kinds of topics
- What accompanies maps? Who controls their interpretation? What is their role in making an argument?
- How do recent web maps compare to maps made online in the past few years? How can maps be made sustainable?
- Which of these maps are in your discipline? Which maps might be helpful models for your discipline?