Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Mapping omissions

"it's more fun not being so easily definable"
Chris, Crip Pastor

Do you ever wonder where you fit in? I suspect that most of us do. Maybe that is why maps have long fascinated me. As a kid, I'd look at them a lot, and when I started driving, would order topographic maps of the places that interested me (something that usually coincided with watching trains). And today, if there's a quiet moment, I'll fire up Google Maps and look at some place that comes to mind.

The search for a place is not an idle thing, even if it's more fun not being definable. And there's more here than planning photographs of trains. Understanding geography helps to make sense of history and why events unfolded as they did.

cover of History of America in 100 MapsThus, my library having completed the acquisition process, I recently read A History of America in 100 Maps by Susan Schulten  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018). It's a large, beautiful book, and is also available at a reasonable price.

My first interest in this book was as an approach to teaching history. Even today, teaching history is far too often just reading a lot of dull text that relates dates and events, with no clue as to why one ought to care, beyond answering questions on an exam. It is small wonder that social media is full of misleading memes--if not outright falsehoods. And none of this teaches logical thought, so the lack of even the barest rationality is no surprise either.

To some extent, I think this what publishers, driven by book adoption boards, want. If we focused on real matters of concern and knew how to see parallels, more than one politician would be unemployed. (If you want to learn more about book adoption boards and dull textbooks, look at James Lowen's page Lies My Teacher Told Me).

This book represents a different approach. Using 100 selected maps from the British Library, Schulten tells the story of the Americas from early European discoveries in the 1500s to today's technology. There's a lot of fascination with ineptly drawn features, at least until we remember that these people were doing the best they could, making political points, and that we're still making mistakes ourselves (yes, that's a lesson to learn from history).

One of the critiques of this book in reviews at Amazon is that's too limited. Anyone who has worked in history ought to be able to tell you that choices are always required. “I am conscious on finishing this book that it could be written all over again under the same title with entirely other subject matter; and then a third time, still without repeating” (Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower: A portrait of the world before the War: 1890-1914, xvii). A better all-around understanding of this principle would greatly help in our society today--there are often viewpoints that we don't consider, and may not know of.

And what's not there is one of the strengths of this book. It points to diversity, and provides enough inspiration to get out there and do your work. Maps are one of the most prolific items to appear on the internet. And as you will learn, maps are not just about geography, there are maps of patterns, industry, and even propaganda (those disingenuous maps of counties or states and their voting patterns that purport to argue a case are nothing new).

There's a place for us
West Side Story

Therefore, I hardly expected to find disability-related maps in the collection. So guess what? I'm going to mention them now! Chris recent wrote about disability visibility. So let's start thinking about map visibility. Today's technology has provided the capability to crowd-source all sorts of accessibility features, and to update them frequently. Google Maps announced the addition of accessibility information to their maps, but they do rely on contributions. And who better to provide accurate information? So lend a hand, there or at another site. It's time for us to get on the map too.

Disclaimer: the Indianapolis Public Library provided me this book with the understanding that I would return it within a set time, which I did.