Understanding maps

When I walked in the main entrance to the The National Library of Scotland, in the vaulted ceiling above, various globes dangled high above and I spied a large map of the British Isles on the risers of the main steps. A very dramatic entry!

The National Library of Scotland has a vast digital repository of maps. The collection is quite well known, and it is not unusual for search results from other libraries to include maps from this collection. During a short visit to Edinburgh, it just so happened the library had an exhibit about maps entitled “You are Here.”

Note the selfie stick!

One of my questions as I advance through my sabbatical year*, is what is happening to “our” ability to read and appreciate maps? This exhibit started at Step 1 – Where are you? You are here. The show started with a plan of the library, where you were actually standing, in the gallery at the library, in Edinburgh. As you moved through the rooms, Edinburgh was located in Scotland and Scotland was located in the British Isles, on the European continent, in the world. This is how the exhibit moved from a micro to a macro look at what maps are, how and why they are made. This was a perfect place to start to learn about maps.

Edinburgh was presented in several maps, through history and to illustrate different properties of maps. You could see the crowded medieval streets on the south side of the city in “Old Town” and the stately, ordered streets of the “New Town” on the north side. Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Park, present in all of the maps, anchor the city throughout time. I have found that it is important to study where you are now, to understand how maps work. Maps of a place you know are far more interesting than places you don’t know. Apparently the curators and map librarians of this show feel the same way.

Edinburgh Castle in the center, Holyrood Park to the left.

Understanding scale is very important to map reading. Scale was introduced early in the exhibit, with an interactive worktable for kids. Using a ruler and a map of central Edinburgh, you could calculate the distance, in kilometers, between the library and a few places in the city and find out if your answer was correct. Of course, if you are used to thinking in miles like me, you’ll have to do an extra calculation to convert the kilometers to miles – to see if you should take a break for a cappuccino before reaching your destination.

Learning about scale.
The exhibit spoke to children and adults

There was wall sized printed map of the city of Edinburgh, sectioned as the original prints. Visitors could see clearly where their hotel or home was located, or what was in that location, when John Bartholomew made the map in 1891. This is one of the maps you can find in the library’s digital archives that enlarges to show intricate detail.

Detail from wall map. See the digital version here.

Scotland is very hilly with “highlands” and “lowlands” — it is important to show the varying elevation on a map. The exhibit presented several maps, each showing a different way to indicate elevation on a flat map. There was a physical model, with wooden blocks, of how color is used to show elevation. Edinburgh maps show the elevations in Holyrood Park and around the Edinburgh Castle with intricate hill shading.

Vacuum formed relief map and early form of mountain chain visuals on the enlarged map.
Corresponding to the Edinburgh environs: brown is the highest elevation, green is the lowest and blue is water.
Early example of hill shading that doesn’t quite fit visually with the city plan on the left.

The maps of Scotland were quite varied. One map was a “poem” – place names were substituted with the meaning of the place name. Other maps showed how humans influenced physical place, for instance with a “map of smells” around Edinburgh. There are many things to map, beyond locations.

Scotland, on its side.
Map as poem, The hidden place, by Thomas A. Clark
Various maps of Scotland, aside a stack of Ordnance Survey maps of Scotland



Moving on to the European Continent and the World, the exhibit continued to show many interesting maps. We were introduced to MacDonald Gill, who created wonderfully illustrated theme maps in the early to mid part of the 20th century. His maps, such as the one exhibited about early global telecommunication, were eye catching and colorful. It’s no doubt Gill’s maps stuck in some people’s minds for many years. I’m guessing a map like this would inspire you to learn more about a subject, or even more about maps.

Cable and Wireless Great Circle Map, MacDonald Gill, 1945. Click to enlarge.

Maps have always fascinated people. There were odd devices for viewing maps and many map based games. Even today, with digital tools, people are still trying to make a map that is instantly understandable and easily used. (More on that later in this blog – since I’ve been traveling, I have been keeping track of the pros and cons of modern place maps.)

Geographical Cubes game, 1870
Pocket atlas! Can you imagine using this?
Map flip chart. Another attempt at making maps “easier” to use.

As a map guides you from one place to another, the exhibit guided you from small to large through a series of rooms. The graphics were simple, yet very effective and played off of the visual language of maps. The information was concise and easy to understand. The choice of maps shown, not too many, not too few, illustrated their points nicely. There was far more in the show than I am including in this post.

The exhibit was small, compared to the blockbuster at the British Library this past winter. But this exhibit was just as interesting and informative. Kudos to the curators and exhibit designers, they were able to bring a vast topic into focus and make the content memorable.

The exhibit design was great.

The exhibit posed topics with a question – why use symbols; why do maps have scale; and so on. I was intrigued by “Do maps go out of date?” I think I will be revisiting this over the next several months. I’ve seen and fallen in love with maps from the 17 and 1800’s. When I was in London, I studied several maps of the area to find that many of the streets that were on a map in the 1700s were still going strong in 2016! The exhibit answers the question by saying that maps are a snapshot in time. An old map may not be helpful to get you from one place to another, but they remain relevant in the history that they portray. I would like to add to that the memories that you have as you look at a map, especially if you used that map as you travel. As with all things digital, they can be easily and quickly updated. The present prevails and old things are replaced. In 10 years, no one will be looking at Google maps to recall what they did on their 2017 sabbatical.

* only 5 more months left, but who’s counting? (wow, that’s a tiny apostrophe.)


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