15 Reading maps: A process guide
Maps, even contemporary ones, are basically primary sources that have to be analyzed and evaluated. This process guide for reading maps is based on Kathryn Walbert’s model for approaching primary sources.
- What is the map intended to convey or represent?
- What physical features are present on the map?
- What cultural (human-made) features are present on the map?
- Who created this map, and what do I know about him/her/them?
- When was the map produced?
- Where was it produced?
- Was the map drawn by hand, or by computer?
- What is the source of the cartographic data? (A survey? Satellite images? The mapmaker’s imagination?)
- What projection does the map use?
- Where is the map centered?
- Where are the map’s borders — how is it framed? What is not shown on the map?
III. The mapmaker’s choices
- What is the intended audience for the map? What did the mapmaker assume about that audience? What did/do they already know or expect to see?
- What aspects of the map does the projection distort? Is the projection appropriate to the map’s intended use? Could it cause any misunderstanding?
- What is implied by the centering and framing of the map?
- What colors did the mapmaker choose? What might those colors imply?
- What symbols did the mapmaker choose? What might those symbols imply? How might they be misread?
- Why was this map created?
IV. Maps showing data
If the map shows scientific, demographic, or other data:
- What is the source of the map’s data? Is the source reliable?
- What scale was used to represent the data?
- What initial visual impression does the map give? Is that visual impression consistent with what it’s trying to convey?
V. Historical context
If the map is a historical map:
- What was the historical context for this map? How did the mapmaker fit into that context?
- How was that world different from yours?
- How might people at the time have reacted to this map?
- How does this map compare to other sources? Is the information provided by it consistent with what’s provided by other sources and readings and with your own experience?
- What do you believe and disbelieve about this map?
- What do you still not know — and where can you find that information?