Mapmaking & me

I should probably post an actual introduction, although my story will be just as boring this time as when you all heard it in class.

My name is Kirk Johnson; I am a public librarian in Prince William County and I am beginning my Ph.D. studies at GMU this Fall. My interest is in early and mid-nineteenth century transportation, and I am assuming my dissertation will have something to do with turnpikes and canals in pre-Civil War Virginia. 

I am taking this class partly because I know that being able to create my own maps and manipulate cartographic information* will be a very useful skill set considering my interest in transportation. Also, like many people who later grew up to be interested in history, I had a huge interest in maps as a kid, and I’ve never really outgrown it. I first “visualized” history by looking at maps of Civil War battles, the Roman Empire at it’s 2nd century C.E. zenith, Alexander’s conquests, etc. To this day, when I’m thinking of planning a trip the first thing I do is to check out an atlas so I can “see” where I’m going. Problematic as it may be, I still ‘see’ the world in terms maps and atlases. 

I don’t know if we were supposed to react much to the readings for our second week of class, but I can’t help but share a couple of reactions:

1) Wood’s first chapter on the relationship between maps and the rise of the modern state was fascinating. I really appreciate his insight that earlier “maps” and map-liking drawings and diagrams really weren’t “maps” in the sense of being connected to any larger map-making tradition or mindset. His contention that the development of the modern map was a part of the state-building process of the early modern period was fascinating. Given that one of my “meta-interests” in History is the nature of state-building and the idea of the nation-state as an artificial construct, this chapter was particularly interesting to me.

2) Wood’s second chapter really tested my ability to follow a semiotic argument over an extended period of time. I won’t pretend that I retained the bulk of his argument, but I do have a much keener appreciation for the idea of map themselves as coded symbols conveying cultural and political information.

3) Harley’s chapter on British maps, both county atlases and colonial maps, was quite interesting. The larger argument, that historians under-value the historical value of older maps, merits attention as well.

As for the websites, I was already familiar with “American Memory” but not the other three. Putting aside the maps themselves, I will say that none of the first three sites exactly blew me away with their interfaces or graphic presentations. I played with the search tools some, particularly in the Perry-Castaneda collection, and my results were somewhat hit and miss. With Perry-Castaneda, you definitely want to stick to the Historical Maps section; the rest is a grab-bag of maps with no interactive functions and a mixture of usefulness. Also, the “link-dump” nature of much of the site seems to clutter the site and bury the “good stuff” under too much extraneous outside sources. That sort of approach made sense back in the 1990s, but Libraries in the 21st century need to trust users to find non-proprietary sites on their own and stick to making Library websites leaner and more focused on the information patrons won’t be able to access elsewhere.

In closing, I am really looking forward to this class. I won’t pretend I’m not a little daunted by the technical expertise required–compared to most of my peers, I’m behind the curve on my software prowess, and I recognize that my learning curve is going to be a steep one. But I trust that the effort will be worth it. I’m really looking forward to learning from all of you.


*Is “manipulate cartographic information” a thing? If not, it should be. 


3 thoughts on “Mapmaking & me

  1. I like your concise summary of the readings. Like you, when I want to go on a trip or travel, my thought is to survey the route and alternative route on a map or atlas. As for the software, I think we all will have a learning curve, but that is one of the draws of this class. I look forward to hearing your librarian perspective, especially in the user frinedliness of what we are doing in class since you deal with public access and usability on a regualr basis. By the way, I was a page at the the Central Fairfax Library during my years in high school.

  2. I’m very much like you in that my interest in maps really colored my perspectives of not just history but of everyday living as well. I’m not sure if you feel the same way, but I certainly came to a new understanding this week of maps and their uses in gathering information other than locations and points in time. As for the various mapping websites, I too found the interfaces and general navigation of the sites to be cumbersome and not very intuitive. Hopefully this can be something as a class we can learn from when working on our own projects. Otherwise, great post. Looking forward to more.

  3. Kirk – obviously a blogging veteran – thanks for the recap and your views of the website’s utility. Still evaluating them but I know American Memory will aid my research on Point Lookout, Maryland – already garnerd a period map of the POW camp. I am taking the class to learn how to utlize GIS for my own research interests into Confededate mortaility at Union POW camps – my 711 project will focus on Point Lookout due to archival resources and personal interest. Best of luck on your Ph.D. studies and look forward to this class. – Jim Dean

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