Why I’m a Maphead
Just like Brick Tamland loves lamp, I love map.
This came in part from my grandmother. Whenever she’d visit, we’d usually go to a museum or historic site. Upon arrival, she always said “you got to have a map, Zach, so we know where to go.” Even at places we’d been to before, I would immediately grab a map and navigate around. Still to this day I usually consult a map when entering a museum instead of wandering aimlessly.
Even outside of public history sites, I value maps. On road trips I always get navigating duties, and I never ask for directions–not because I’m embarrassed to do so, but because I always want to figure them out on my own via maps. In addition, I pride myself on my ability to decipher the local transit map in foreign cities that I visit. And that’s no laughing matter as transit maps overseas like London, Madrid and Paris are much more complex than D.C.’s Metro map.
As a Maphead, I believe spatial history is absolutely vital in Digital History. Besides the very practical uses of maps I outlined above, maps can be great tools of learning. The image at the top of this post comes from a 2012 Guardian piece on strange, yet illuminating, maps. More recently, back in December one website published “40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense of the World.” Though obviously all these maps are rooted in geography, in addition they teach us about astronomy, politics, geology, demography, ecology, economics, language, sociology, meteorology, transportation and of course history. (Check out a gallery of my favorite maps from those two links below.)
History really can benefit from this approach. As Richard White, the head of Stanford’s Spatial History Project, says, “Space is itself historical.” Quoting French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, White argues that spatial relations are an integral part of human history, as our world constantly affects human interaction. Therefore, I think there is great benefit in using these visual tools as historical research, whether we’re detailing incidents of crime in Harlem, or the rise and fall of Napoleon’s Army in Russia. Historians should not view maps just as representations of their “traditional” research, but instead should be using it as a research tool in the first place. In the words of White, spatial history “generates questions that might otherwise go unasked, it reveals historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, and it undermines, or substantiates, stories upon which we build our own versions of the past.”