DH – 804 – Mapping

I love maps.

This statement may prompt chuckles and eye rolls but it is not meant to be facetious or make light of the topic. Maps and mapping have become an important part of my life. This is strange considering that a few short years ago, I could count the things I knew about maps on one hand. Yet, through a series of (fortunate) events, I received a Bachelor’s of Science in Geography and Geographic Information Science (GIS). Now, I pause when I walk by a map in a hallway to “read it over” and I own numerous maps and atlases. So, over the course of a few years, I have come to love maps and mapping. This is especially important as I have transitioned into the field of history.

History is inherently spatial. Every person, place, event, document, object has a geography, whether it is a single location or many. It is impossible to be devoid of any location. Yet, somehow within the historical scholarship for a time, there was no space for place. As outlined in the introductory section of The Spatial Humanities, “only recently have scholars revived what had been a dormant interest in the influence of physical or geographical space on human behavior and cultural development.” This spatial turn is motivated largely by the influx of GIS into humanities scholarship. And that is how I found myself pursuing history in graduate school. I literally followed “the GIS trail” into a different discipline. The integration of historical scholarship and spatial analysis is extremely exciting. For the purposes of this blog post, I want to discuss two different elements within mapping and history.


Ed Ayers and Scott Nesbit, in their article Seeing Emancipation, define scale in two ways. First “scale defines the varying spatial and temporal reach of specific practices” and secondly, “[scale] is also a matter of perception, the frame that observers lay down over evidence of social activity.” Thus scale exists both in the historical element and presently in the imposed framework by the historian. Scale, as Ayers and Nesbit explain, is important in understanding the actions of the past. A third and largely cartographically focused meaning of scale is the corresponding distance on the ground to the distance on the map. Often it is described like this: 1:24,000. This scale ratio is simply articulating that one unit (inch, foot, mile etc.) on the map is equal to 24,000 of those units on the ground. Glancing over a map, most people don’t really dwell on the scale. However, when employing maps in analysis, scale is paramount to the design and development of the map. It dictates the amount of geographic area that is shown on the map. A small scale map (think 1:250,000) shows a lot of geographic ground, especially when compared to a large scale map. When mapping an historical event or place, it is important to decide how much area should be seen or shown. This is even more important when the map is used for analysis and the boundaries of the map dictate the boundaries of information being considered.

As maps are representations of the world, scale also largely dictates the amount of generalization in the map. Ian Gregory and Alistair Geddes, in their text Toward Spatial Humanities, articulate that representing a city as a point is almost non-sensical. Yet, depending on the scale of a map, using a point as a opposed to a polygon to represent a city is necessary. Incidentally, as you move further from a large scale map to a small scale, more generalization is needed and more information is ignored or “lost.”  This leads me into my second point.

Error or Distortion

For all my advocacy and love of maps, maps got some problems. Geographers tend to call these problems error or distortions. These errors are introduced largely because a map is trying to represent a three-dimensional object on a two dimensional platform. As my cartography professor used to say, “All maps reveal and conceal.” Understanding the various limitations of maps is even more important for historians as GIS and other mapping technologies are appropriated from another field. Historians have developed strong methodologies to interpret text based documents. Maps can be and are just as complex to read and interpret. The best example of the complexity maps and distortion maps can introduce are Map projections or the process of projecting the world onto a flat surface. The  errors and distortions from map projections can provide false understandings of spatial relationships. The best example of this can be the comparison of Greenland to Africa from a Mercator World Map. The television show, the West Wing, comically articulates the distortion the can be introduced by map projections. (watch it here).

I am excited to be a part of the discipline of history as a geographer. Mapping provides a platform for illustrating relationships between phenomena that can’t be fully realized through text only. While not a perfect medium, maps can greatly enhance the depth and breadth of historical analysis (to borrow from McGregor and Geddes). I am excited to see where the spatial turn goes and am even more excited to be a part of it.


DH – 804 – Mapping
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