I’ve always considered maps to be useful resources no matter what historical period I happen to be studying at any given time. I like being able to place events because doing so provides me with another perspective. Focusing on the “where” of an event, along with the “who” and “what,” contributes to my understanding of it. Maps can tell us how close the nearest river was, what cities were close by, and other factual details that a visual representation of a geographic space can. As historians, we try to include more information, such as the “how” and “why” of events. These attributes aren’t usually found in a standard geographical map. By considering the context of the map, we can start filling in these holes.
Think about an old railroad map that marks the stops of a particular line. One inference from looking at the map is that the cities were most likely chosen because of their population, as railroad companies wanted to sell tickets where people would buy them. However, looking at historical data is necessary to test this theory, as well as other sources. This might be a good use of GIS, which could pull in historical census data to create a new map. A time-lapse map could even be created to reflect how those train stations changed over time, as well as the local population. This is just one facet of how maps can aid historians in “doing history.”
While I’m still absorbing the readings from this week, I am looking forward to creating our own maps in class. With such an abundance of maps everywhere we turn (Google maps, Metro maps, campus maps, etc.), I think historians can benefit from employing more maps in their research. In the past, I’ve usually been drawn to maps for their artistic qualities, but now I am starting to realize the power that maps hold. Who decides what gets put on a map vs. what doesn’t? Throughout history (mostly after 1500) maps have been created for a wide range of uses. From identifying land ownership to public transportation, maps have been a source of understanding space and time. The information we can get from maps can only improve our scholarship.
ETA: This week I’ve commented on Erin’s blog post on early maps.