A Lesson in Maps

According to people much more well-versed in physics than I, time travel to the past is impossible. (And if you’d like to know more about why that is, we have a great selection of books on the theory of relativity.)

I know what you’re thinking. He’s going to say that the library can take us back in time with our books on history. And yes, we do have some spectacular books which I encourage you to browse. Just head upstairs and browse in the D section for European and Asian history, and E and F for American history. But I will avoid going into great detail on our history collection (though I will highlight The Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects as one of our awesome new books in the subject). Instead, I wanted to talk about a different way we can “travel through time,” and that’s by looking at maps.

You may have noticed that there’s been some changes in the LRC lately. Books are moving. Desks are moving. Dust is certainly moving, and hopefully not getting too deep into your lungs. Recently, as part of our ongoing project to shift items around in the library, we decided to move our back collection of National Geographic magazine upstairs. While doing so, we happened to find several maps in one of the volumes. These maps provide some interesting insight into just how the world has changed over the last 40 years.

We have hung these maps upstairs, so go take a look at them. In particular the ones we’ve pulled out relate to Europe and Asia. The continent has undergone some pretty dramatic changes following World War II and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union. The maps show states that no longer exist like East and West Germany, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Romania when it was spelled Rumania. We also have a map of Asia from 1971. This map depicts Vietnam as two separate countries: North and South Vietnam, while there is only one Korea depicted. It also uses the older anglicized versions for some city names in China: Peking instead of Beijing, Nanking instead of Nanjing.

Maps are interesting beasts. You may not realize it, but they can make political statements. Take the 1969 map of Europe from National Geographic for example. It notes that Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are not recognized as Soviet territories by the United States, despite the USSR’s claim to them. So this map is already making political statements about sovereignty. These are all issues mapmakers must consider. When there are disputed boundaries to a territory, what do you show on a map? Do you use the name Burma or Myanmar? Maps produced in Arab countries will often omit Israel and only list Palestine. Russia may soon be producing maps which extend its own borders into Ukraine’s Crimea region, whereas maps produced in the US may keep it as part of Ukraine. Even many current national boundaries, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, are relics of the empires of Europe from the early twentieth century. (One of our instructors at Coastal often likes to share a story about how his grandfather has a French passport because he was born in what, “at that time,” was part of France.)

They can also affect how we view the world. Maps face the challenge of taking a 3D object and trying to project it onto a 2D space. Consider the Mercator projection, which you might be familiar with. It distorts and enlarges the planet’s poles while shrinking the equator area, thus making Greenland appear larger than Africa. The Mollweide projection, in contrast, more accurately represents the sizes of the continents. Even the orientation of maps matter. Think about it: the “top” and “bottom” are in fact pretty arbitrary because there is no real up or down in outer space. Our typical image of the world places a lot of prominence on Europe and North America just by virtue of them being at the top. By contrast, you can find maps that turn the world “upside down” which can give you a whole new perspective of how the world looks.

Interested in learning more? Check out some of the library’s books on maps and mapping. A History of the World in Twelve Maps discusses the evolution of our understanding of the earth over time, from early mappa mundi (early world maps which often include Biblical locations as well as real-world locations) to modern day maps. The Mapmakers is another book focusing on the history of cartography, particularly the individuals who pioneered it. We also have several atlases, including the beautiful Oxford Atlas of the World and several area-specific atlases. These are located in the G sections of the library, both in reference downstairs and the general collection upstairs, so take a look. And also look at our great National Geographic maps that we posted upstairs as well. Looking at maps is a lot like traveling back in time. A lot has changed in the last 40 years. Who knows what might change in the years to come?


About Garrison L.

Public Services Librarian extraordinaire and mantis shrimp enthusiast. View all posts by Garrison L.

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