The Art of Cartography and the Science of Scale

Maps emphasize what matters to the cartographer, and can trace how this changes over time. For example, check out the OldMapsOnline Portal. This project allows users to search for online digital maps from libraries around the world, and to narrow the search by location and date. The screen shot below is the search interface, which includes a timeline slider at the top:

old maps online screenshot
Screenshot from Old Maps Online.

The user can then select from the historical maps on the right to examine them in detail. I was surprised to find out that over one hundred years ago, there was a train station much more conveniently located to where my house is! It must have been torn down when they built the highways, which I can only regard as a dubious sign of progress.

Maps can also be works of art. The British Library has some amazing maps online, including Desceliers’ world map, which was made in the 16th century for King Henri II of France:

Desceliers’ world map

and this Hajj certificate (documenting a pilgrimage to Mecca) from the year 836 AH (1432-33 AD). The 15th century scroll is illustrated with images of Mecca and the principal stations of the pilgrimage (other places on the haji’s route).

With all this available digitally, we don’t need paper maps anymore, right? Wrong – and here’s one reason why from Seth Stevenson:

There’s also a certain flavor of geographic comprehension that comes with taking in a map all at once in a large format. Imus argues that you can’t truly understand a place if you only use zoomed-in maps on teensy screens. (Evidence for this notion: Although we probably look at maps now more than at any other time in history—thanks to their digital ubiquity—our knowledge of geography hasn’t improved at all. Studies show that our kids continue to live in geographic ignorance, in some cases worse than it was 15 years ago.) Looking at Imus’ big, richly detailed map offers a holistic sense of what America looks like—how cities spread out along rivers, forests give way to plains, and mountains zigzag next to valleys. In Imus’ exuberant view, a map like this might inspire enough geographic curiosity to guide the next generation of students back on course.

(Read the rest of his post here, and you can buy the map created by David Imus here.)

You can drive this lesson home by having your students work through the Case Study: “Geography and Scale” in WorldView Software’s World Geography. Once they’ve read the case and answered the questions, you can challenge them to create zoomable maps. Start with the smallest scale: a map of the area around a single student’s desk (or other feature in the room). Then progress to a map of the classroom, school, neighborhood, town or city, and state. At each level, be sure to have students discuss the details that will be included and excluded, and encourage them to explain their reasoning.

BulbgraphOnOffGive struggling students practice in analyzing information presented in maps, graphs, and charts with the graphical questions in each chapter.

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Dr. Annelies Kamran is V.P. for Content and Product Development at WorldView Software, Inc.

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