Maps and Digital History Research

Why Maps?

My history with maps goes back a very, very long way. My first memory of being fascinated by maps goes back before I could drive, before I was involved in sports most days after school, to when I was a small child, getting dropped off by my mom at my dad’s classroom. My school day ended before my dad’s, so there was always some amount of time I would have to wait in his room while he finished up his work, planning for the next day. Having been in a similar classroom all day, I usually found this pretty boring — however, I always found myself drawn to the corner of his classroom, where my dad had a collection of fairly old (from at least before Soviet Union collapsed, because the most modern map still showed it) maps. I was again and again fascinated by flipping through the maps, discovering new pieces of information and differences between each map every day. I thought the differences between the maps, especially in purpose (some were geographic, others describing military campaigns in important wars), were very interesting and despite there only being a few maps, I found enough entertainment for many hours in that simple collection.

Maps are fascinating to me because of the sheer amount of information that can be stored in a single map, and I think that maps (and the digital tools created around mapping that we’ve discussed in class) could be amazing resources for a digital history project.

What Makes Maps Useful?

I think that the most obvious advantage of a map is being able to zoom out and examine spaces from angles or scales that are simply impossible to us, with our physical limitations and small fields of vision. Maps can provide an abstraction of a place that makes it much easier to understand at anything beyond a practical level of knowledge. There are many places in my life, whether on campus or back home, that I would only be able to give a very linear description of by rethinking my own footsteps through that place. A map can expand that little tunnel we create — when you’ve seen a map of the space you are in or have been in, it becomes much easier to think about the space from a broader view, matching up the things we encounter with areas on the map and turning our tunnel-like view of reality into something we can use to zoom and view the spaces around us in full.

This ability to zoom out makes it much easier to discover trends. For example, a map can show border changes in a very clear way without the fuzziness of getting at that information through our eyes, or through the writings or speech of someone else who saw it with theirs. There are also many topics — population, borders, troop movements, weather patterns, and more — for which it makes a lot of sense to see the correlation between the topic and the space in which it is occurring,  and therefore there are lots of types of maps with varying information and purpose but transposed over a similar or identical space. This leads to another feature that makes maps useful tools — easy comparison. With maps, you can easily see the changes that occurred in a region over time, or see how two forces or topics might interact with each other.

I think these advantages of maps make it much easier to discover and investigate research questions. Maps give a field of vision that allows someone to notice trends or changes that are on a larger-than-human scale, that might be hard to quantify or even notice from a personal perspective. And when a research question is found, maps can also make possible answers more clear. For example, I might feel as though population density is rising in an area through personal experience being there, but a map can give me a much better idea of whether that’s actually happening on a broader scale, a exception to an overall trend, or simply my own perspective leading me astray. The ability to compare maps can also highlight possible correlations that might help answer the “why” of a research question.

What Does Digital Mapping Add, And What Does It Take Away?

Over the past few weeks we’ve examined quite a few mapping tools (Carto, Tableau, and others) that make creating maps and gleaning information from them much easier. One of the most obvious benefits is the ease of creating new maps online and transposing different data sets and data points onto existing maps. Computers make working with large data sets much easier, and using one of these tools turns a long process that could require skills in graphic design, math, and cartography into a fairly simple series of clicks. The Internet also makes sharing maps much easier, which means that a larger group of people can now create maps, get them out to the public, and access maps that have been shared by others. Again, this makes a task that would most likely have to be handled by a company in the past something an individual with minimal experience can do pretty easily. Some of the sharing culture of the Internet is also important in this lowering of the bars to create a map – projects like OpenStreetMap do a lot of the heavy lifting that is still impossible for an individual to accomplish and there are many free or easily accessible starting points to create a map that would have been proprietary in earlier days.

However, this also might make finding the data underneath a map, or the source of that information, much more confusing. Sharing data and tools is great, but as  a researcher it is important to determine the trustworthiness of the data or sources that are being used, and maps are no exception. I would imagine that for many researchers, trying to find the original source of data or determining why the mapmaker made the map is like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Despite those drawbacks, it’s still pretty clear to me that the digital aspect of mapping has provided tools to researchers that have almost unlimited usefulness. Although a fan of maps like myself might have a tough time admitting that you need much more than a map, the advancements we’ve made in the digital age have somehow made a major improvement on an already fascinating way of storing information.

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