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Author: Deborah Lines Andersen
Title: Maps of the World
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
September 2005

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Source: Maps of the World
Deborah Lines Andersen

vol. 8, no. 2, September 2005
Article Type: Benchmark

Maps of the World

Deborah Lines Andersen

Benchmark: a standard by which something can be measured or judged. [1]

Organizing Information with Maps

The months of August and September have been overwhelmed with hurricanes this year.  Turning on television is likely to produce pictures of wind and flood damage, and satellite images of hurricanes crossing the Gulf of Mexico and moving toward the southern coast of the United States.  These aerial satellite images are powerful because we can see the enormity of the storms, where they have been, and, through simulations, where they are going.  They are also powerful because the news media has the ability to cut between these aerial shots to close ups of people, buildings and water. Our weather channels organize information by using these visual images—enormous and distant as well as up close and personal—to create a coherent picture of what has happened and will be happening in the near future.

Visual images have always been important for historians.  A picture is worth a thousand words. Photographs of Civil War soldiers, unemployed individuals during the Great Depression, soldiers during the world wars, and domestic images of families, farmers, and daily life are the grist of historic inquiry.

Equally important for the historian are maps. No child has gone through elementary school without studying the routes of Louis and Clark, or the great explorers who first circumnavigated the globe.  These historic maps combine time and place.  We know the route of Louis and Clark and the timeframe within which they moved across the country.  We can tell a story about their exploration by studying maps of their route.

Similarly, over the course of a week in the fall, meteorologists have been telling the story of Katrina or Rita, plotting storm courses over the critical days before and after the storm hit land, giving histories of wind speed, tidal surges, ocean temperatures that feed the storms, flooding measurements, destruction in terms of dollars, and the human toll in terms of lives. We understand what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico and beyond because of a combination of information that is organized around these maps.

Interestingly enough, we also have the ability to see the future through the eyes of meteorologists and their simulation software.  Peoples’ lives can be saved if they heed these predictions, and as we saw for Hurricane Rita, exit the areas that are mostly likely to be hit.

Visual History

The potential to use maps for historical purposes was brought to clear definition one day last month as I was visiting my neighbors’ house.  They have a computer in the living room.  I had just told them about Google Earth so we downloaded the program and zoomed in on their house. [2] My neighbors spent the next fifteen minutes looking at the picture of their house and arguing about when it was taken.  “Look, the addition is not on yet.  That means this is at least 4 years old.”  “Can you see sheep in the back pasture?  If there are more than 7 that means….”  What became quickly apparent was that we were doing a historical analysis—albeit quite recent history—of the property across the street from my own.

Who will capture this information for the future?  Google Earth uses satellite images taken on clear days.  These are not real time like the highway traffic live videos on the news at rush hour every morning.  These pictures across the street were point-in-time data about a particular property.  In years to come the local historic association might find them particularly interesting if doing a local history fair.  This information is easily available, and free, if one has a computer or can go to the library.  We have access.  We do not have to pay an owner for use.  How long will these pictures across the street be available before they are replaced by new ones?  Will we lose this point in time? Google Earth was not meant to be a source of historical information.

Adding Information to Maps

Several years ago the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) in New York State had a problem. [3]  The park was controlled by the laws of various towns and agencies.  Individuals owned land within the park and there were private residences, commercial properties, and state-owned preserves all within the same borders.  There were also maps—paper maps that included roads, water sources, electric lines and the like.  There was so much information in the form of paper maps, deeds, and regulations that it took months for any kind of permit for new use to filter through the system.

Enter Geographic Information Systems (GIS).  The agency worked with an outside consultant to come up with an integrated information system that would superimpose maps on each other, and include permit and regulatory information as well.  It became possible to locate the owner, find water lines, determine rights of way, or look at regulations that covered the use of the land—all on a single, layered map.  The time savings were enormous both for the agency and for individuals who wanted decisions on land use permits. [4]  For the purposes of this column it is worth noting that the information contained in the APA’s maps is indeed historic information.  It documents policy decisions, infrastructure design, and property transfer in this region.  It does not, however, maintain a historic record of previous transactions or improvements.  Individuals who contact the APA want most recent information for land use permits.

Maps and History

Digital cartography has come a long way since the first days of Geographic Information Systems.  MapQuest, Yahoo Maps, MSN Virtual Earth, Google Maps, or Google Earth all make use of high-speed computing, satellite and aerial surveillance, and the ability of large portions of the world’s population to use computing for day-to-day activities. [5] As can be seen with my neighbors’ house on Google Earth or the APA’s GIS, digital maps may capture historic information even though that is not their primary function.  It is left to historians to figure out how we might make use of this information for both research and teaching.

Digital Maps and Research

Putting aside any issues of whether or not doing digital history is “doing history,” (and this writer believes it is), the moving of maps to desktop functions has made it possible for scholars to use digital maps the way they use spreadsheets and word processing.  Digital mapping is no longer the arena of cartographers and GIS programming specialists.  Since Google Earth allows private individuals to use and customize its software, there is room for historians to do this customization. [6] In the same way that historians had to learn to use computers, CD drives, and spreadsheets, they will have to learn how to use digital maps.  The point is that the technology is now available, and arguably, will become ubiquitous in the future.

One could picture a Google map of a Civil War battlefield, complete with tents, encampments, paths through the woods, and pop up markers that give the location of various generals, brigades and charges during the course of one particular battle.  Perhaps the pop ups are time coded to deal with the progression of the battle. Google Earth allows one to rotate maps, zooming in to look at them in 3D or moving away to get a larger view of the area.  As the technology advanced perhaps it will be appropriate for history doctoral students to go across campus and take courses in such mapmaking techniques.  As this journal has demonstrated in the past, technology take-up in academic history departments is advancing with help from information science, archival science, and academic historians who embrace new information technologies.

Digital Maps and Teaching

It is not much of a leap to move from doing research with digital maps to doing teaching with digital maps.  It is, in fact, probable that the teaching will come first since students with their iPods, cell phones, wireless computing and the like are also likely to be interested in new technologies, including digital mapping. It is not hard to envision a computer lab full of history students who are geotagging maps of historic sites, using the information they find in primary source documents to create pop-up tags for particular locations. A good history classroom with beam projector and computer would be an obvious place for students to demonstrate these maps for each other, working with mapping, speaking, and document decoding skills. In a melding of technology and history a whole class could explore spatial data in making historic arguments. [7] The next leap will be to have history professors (perhaps those trained as graduate students or those who are present-day technophiles) using digital maps in their teaching and lectures.

Not So Everyday Events

The power of maps to mark changes in the landscape came into sharp focus one night on the evening news.  As the newscaster talked about flooding waters there was an aerial shot of New Orleans before the floods of Hurricane Katrina.  It was easy to see houses, streets, and the edges of land and water in this coastal city. As viewers watched, the image changed to a map of New Orleans after the flood.  Houses were roofs, streets were canals, and the boundary between land and water was no longer there.  It was all water.  We read about the water damage in the newspaper, and heard about it on the radio and television. In 20 seconds, with two satellite maps, the reality of the situation was made more real than any verbal account.  A month later it is easy to remember the visual impact of those maps.  Before and after.  Technology and history.

Footnote: Tracking Historic Places

On September 29, 2005, on the 6:30 national news there was a disturbing segment on the recent hurricanes and the Mississippi coastline.  In scene after scene the news commentator voiced over first pictures of antebellum houses in Mississippi, and then those pictures with the houses missing.  He stated that these houses had survived the Civil War but that they had been destroyed by the forces of nature.  There were curators picking through the rubble trying to find the artifacts that had filled these historic structures turned museums.

There is an important piece of research that could be done—map research—to identify and geocode the structures that have been lost.  It should be possible to find pictures that could be attached to maps—pictures and descriptive data that will preserve digitally what has been lost physically.  One curator said that his museum will be rebuilt.  Geocoded data could help this rebuilding process that will take architects, foundations, museum curators, and historians to accomplish. The digital maps of today can provide researchers, students, and citizens with important data for studying and recreating the past.  Until the structures are rebuilt digital materials would allow access to their physical form, history, and contents.  While they are being reconstructed such documentation would help in the building process.  After reconstruction one could study the difference between the original and the reproduction.  Using maps and information attached to maps, there are great possibilities for telling stories—histories—that might be lost otherwise.


Dates for each online citation are for the copyright or issue date for that particular item.  All items were accessed and live on September 26, 2005.

1. “Benchmark,” American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000.

2. Find the homepage for Google Earth at

3. See for the homepage of the Adirondack Park Agency.

4. Information on the Adirondack Park Agency’s maps and geographic information systems is available at

5. See Wade Roush. 2005. “Killer Maps.” Technology Review 108 (10): 54-60 for an overview of digital maps and their ability to organize information today.

6. See Roush’s article for a discussion of individuals and communities customizing Google Earth and Google Maps for their own applications. Among his examples are map plottings of cheap gas, and a sexual predators map for the state of Florida that allows one to click on a map location to have the name, address, and mug shot of a resident offender. (Page 58)

7. The reader should look at Ed Ayers “Valley of the Shadow” to see applications of maps, technology, and history (  The extension proposed here would be to get students to create and enhance maps to better understand historic processes.