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What Makes a Map a Map?

Maps are rich historical sources. Like narrative documents, both the form and substance of historical maps tell a story. The “form” of an historical map—its artwork, its “style” and presentation—in itself provides an insight into past eras and cultures. The “substance” of a map (what it shows, literally) provides a record of past landscapes and features that may no longer exist. It also reflects the priorities, sensibilities, fears, and the state of knowledge of the mapmaker and his or her cultural context.


A map offers a reader a new dimension of analysis, a visual dimension. One of the particular advantages of a map is that it conveys nonlinear and simultaneous knowledge. In a single glance at a map, a reader can tell what’s going on over the whole map at a single moment in time.


In a single frame, a map also offers rich contextualization that might otherwise take pages and pages of text to convey. Because of its visual properties, almost by definition a map represents its subject in a broader context—that is, in drawing any single place, the mapmaker also situates that place in relation to other nearby places. Sometimes “relational geography” is the primary purpose of a map (to show how close A is to B), and sometimes this contextualizing effect is just a fortuitous byproduct of the nature of graphic representation.


On the other hand, a single map is not very effective at showing “process.” A narrative can move a reader through time very quickly; a map tends to be static and to show a single place at a single moment. A map then, in distinction from written texts, can be understood as privileging place over process, contextuality over linearity.


“Thematic mapping” is a particularly powerful geographic tool. A thematic map shows the distribution of “non-geographic” features and phenomena (social, cultural, political, or economic features) in their geographic context: for example, a map of poverty rates across a city or country or a map of the distribution of deaths from cholera are “thematic” maps. In showing not only what is happening but where, thematic mapping makes patterns visible—similarities and differences, continuities and contrasts across space—that would be extremely difficult to discern in a narrative treatment.

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