Maps: what they can tell us about the past, present and future?

Ever since I was child I have liked maps, although growing up with a cartographer as a father also means I didn’t really have a choice. I can remember spending many evenings as a child looking at the big atlas (which is rather outdated) we keep in the living room at home. I always liked looking at maps but I never really studied them until I was doing my undergrad. One of my history professors always put historical maps on the midterms and exams. Because of all the studying I did for this I now always joke that I know historical boarders of european countries better than I know the current ones, which is probably actually the truth.

Children of today will not need to look at a regular book atlas because of all the different ways maps can be viewed on the internet. Instead people can now look at Google maps and all the interesting features that go with it on their computers, iPads and cellphones. Google street view is a feature of Google maps but the images it provides are already out dated. Google street view, just like an atlas becomes outdated. Even if it is outdated it can still be incredibly helpful and it also lets you look at interesting places without actually going there. At the moment, people are creating interesting map tools that can be used for a wide variety of possibilities in the future. If Google street view is still around 50 years into the future there will be multiple updates to the images. The images from the earlier versions could be gathered and used to the show how different cities have changed. What do you think people will do with all the data we are currently creating?

People are already creating maps that show information in really interesting ways. Just look at the article 40 maps that explain the world from The Washington Post. Another great title for this article would be 40 maps that change how you see/understand maps and world. I think number 24. called “More than half of humanity lives inside this circle” is one of the most interesting ones even if it is one of the simpler ones because it really makes you think about the differences of living in a rural vs highly populated area. The maps from this article give some great visuals for ideas discussed in Mapping the Nation by Susan Schulten. On the first page of the book Schulten writes, “The map had the odd power to reveal what was already public information.” This one simple sentence explains what people can do with mapping tools. The book focuses on American cartography but the ideas can be applied to cartography of the world. Also, there is an online companion to go along with the book, which gives a number of maps for each chapter. Part of chapter 3 is about diseases, and in the companion there are maps which show outbreaks of different diseases such as Cholera. Mapping tools can be used with historical data but also current. BBC news recently did an article where they mapped out the spread of Ebola called Ebola:Mapping the outbreak. Mapping tools show us information that we already know but in a different way that makes us realize how large and small the world is at the same time.

In the first post I wrote for this blog I mentioned how I believe historians are creating really interesting visual representations of data through technology but with help from people who already know how to use technology really well, even greater representations could be created. The blog post called How did they make that? by Miriam Posner goes into detail on a couple of different digital history projects and the technologies used to make them. For each project there is a breakdown of what the project is, what you will need to know and how to get started. From the ‘what you will need to know’ area you can see that more than basic knowledge of technology is needed for many. Are historians are going to form partnerships with people in technology fields or is learning how to use technology going to become a larger part of being a historian? Since public history programs teach digital history courses it seems as though the later is happening, but is that for the best?

Fisher, Max. “40 Maps That Explain the World.” The Washington Post, August 12, 2013. the-world/.

“Google Maps.” Google Maps. Accessed October 4, 2014. /maps/@37.0625,-95.677068,4z.

Posner, Miriam. “How Did They Make That?” Miriam Posner’s Blog. Accessed October 4, 2014.

Schulten, Susan. “Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America.” MyiLibrary. Accessed October 4, 2014.


2 thoughts on “Maps: what they can tell us about the past, present and future?

  1. Interesting point about what we’ll be able to do with Google Maps in the future. All that data (assuming it will continue to be collected) will be a gold mine for future historians. One interesting current application of the Google Earth history setting is to track conflict zones. This blog takes a brief look at a neighbourhood in Damascus over the course of a couple months to show how much destruction has occurred:

    Imagine if we had been able to do that for the whole of Europe during the Second World War!

    P.S. As a fellow map enthusiast, I’d heartily recommend checking out Ken Jenning’s “Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks.” It’s a really fun read.


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