Friday, November 20, 2009

Geography Awareness Week 2009: Maps are Worth a Million Words

Originally published as part of National Geographic's My Wonderful World's Geography Awareness Week Blogathon

As the classic Chinese proverb goes, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Some people can sit for hours just looking at photo collections, piecing together the stories that brought every element of the picture into being. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a map must be worth a million. A good map combines artistic cartographic beauty with plentiful spatial data to form an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge on just a sheet of paper. However, just as some people are illiterate with words; many people are unable to read the million words on a map because they do not know what they should look for. This is because most people use a map to get from point A to point B. The fastest growing map market, car GPS, is made for just that purpose. Map users tend to ignore any other feature on the GPS. Likewise, those who use road maps or any other map ignore other markings.

Looking at a map and actually reading it can open up the wide world of geography to anyone. One must look at all the features on the map and wonder why the things are the way they are. Geography is “What is where?”, “why there?”, and “why care?” Remembering these definitions opens up one's mind to the story the map is telling. Examining and thinking about why roads take odd turns to reach certain towns and ignore older roads can reveal a history of towns and their champions’ struggling to ensure easy access and growth. Seeing a winding river with oxbow lakes along the sides tells of thousands of rivers, river valleys, and mineral rich soils. Towns with different sounding names tie the place with immigrant communities, Indian nations, or founders who left their mark on the place long after they died. Finally, what a map makers labels and what they leave out offers insight into the cartographer’s values and biases in what they think is important.

A good map is like a good book with illustrations: pretty to look at and full of knowledge, adventure, and history. This Geography Awareness Week, take some time to grab a map, atlas, or globe, and read the story that it tells you. The new world it contains awaits you!

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