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Sharing our maps with the world

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As a reader of this blog, you're probably already aware of some of our digital outreach efforts, including posts here and on our Facebook page.  In the last few months, we've taken on another service to provide access to our resources: the Yahoo-based Flickr photosharing service.  Flickr is a convenient package for uploading, organizing, and displaying digital images on the internet.  For the average user, it's a means for sharing family photos and vacation pictures.  For us, it's an opportunity to provide easy access to selections from our map collection online.  We can't post everything, of course.  Copyright law, file size, and the sheer size of our collection placelimits on what and how much we can put up.  But we can share some of our older and more interesting maps, with some of the them looking downright dazzling on screen.  My favorites are the 1907 Scarborough Map of the World, the stylish 1895 French army maps of North Africa, and the OSS maps detailing what was known about Germany and other enemies during WWII.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, we've posted many hours of reading to our photostream.  Have a look, and feel free to comment on anything that catches your eye.  The images are downloadable in a variety of sizes, though the largest maps have been greatly down-sampled to fit the site's size requirements and may look fuzzy when reconstituted.  Getting a better copy is as easy as emailing us, so don't be shy.  We love to share, which is what Flickr is all about.

The Difference a Good Map Makes

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Sometimes when I tell people that I make maps for a living, this kind of perplexed look passes over their faces.  They seem to be wondering: what can possibly be left to map?  They are most likely thinking about road or topographic maps, which seek to depict physical features on the earth's surface as accurately as possible.  And aside from updating and quality improvement, there isn't much "new" cartography to be done.

But the maps I make are thematic, meant to highlight a particular idea or topic.  Because data frequently change or are created, there's always something new to be mapped.  In many cases, the data have been around for a while, but no one thought to map it.  Or if they mapped it, they didn't do a very good job of it.  By 'good,' I mean the map does not clearly communicate what it is meant to communicate.  It doesn't necessarily have to be attractive, though there is no particular reason why it shouldn't be, as long as it is comprehensible, and accurate.  There are numerous design elements that go into creating a good map, text placement, layout, symbology, etc, and those are easily learned about with some additional reading (I highly recommend the British Cartographic Society's short and sweet Cartography: an introduction).

What I'd like to do is focus on a specific example.  Earlier this week our governor announced his budget plan for the coming year, which includes a 30% decrease in funding for state-related schools like Penn State.  Our student body of 96,519 is distributed across 24 campuses and cyberspace.  I was curious about what our enrollment numbers would look like on a map.  In digging through the online Fact Book for 2011's enrollment, I came across a Total Enroll by Location page that included a map and a table. 

enroll location map.jpg

The map really just serves as a reference, and doesn't add any benefit to understanding the data.  And even then, it doesn't do a particularly good job.  For example, there's no relationship between campus locations/enrollment and the mountains, so why show them (and in wrong places, no less)?  Ditto for the rivers; furthermore, there's an odd break in the middle of the Susquehanna that is inaccurate.  Text placement is poor and crowded.  The campus symbols would stand out better if they were outlined or were darker.

By contrast, this is what a thematic map could do:

psu campuses enroll2011crop4.jpg

The topic at hand is emphasized by not showing extraneous features, such as mountains and rivers.  Proportional symbols show the data in a glance.  With enrollment numbers included on the map, the reader's eye doesn't need to track back and forth from table to map and back.  The symbol is dark, stands out, and is tailored to the theme. 

It may not win any awards, but by my count, this is a good map: it does what it needs to do.  And that, I think, makes the difference.

Index to the world

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The first big project I worked on after being hired at the Maps Library was creating index maps as reference guides to our many map sets.  We were preparing to move from the basement of Paterno Library into renovated space in the basement of central Pattee.  Part of the move included selecting and shifting about 40% of the map collection into off-site storage at the Annex, and much of that 40% consisted of map sets.  A large part of our early collection came from donations from the Library of Congress, parsing out the many sets accumulated by the Army Map Service (AMS) during WWII.  A single map set (say, of France) could have several hundred sheets, each sheet covering a small area.  Without an index, it would be difficult to find a particular area of interest.

In some cases, indexes came with (or on) the map sets themselves.  In some cases, they had to be created.  Unfortunately for my predecessor, most of the indexes he had created were superseded by move-related cataloging efforts that resulted in reassigned call numbers.  Some sets were being catalogued for the first time and no index existed.  So, over the next year, I trailed after the catalogers, updating or creating indexes as the sets were cataloged.  By the end of the process, I had created over 500 pdf's, most of them scans of existing indexes, marked to show our holdings, and some drawn in ArcView GIS software, following a complicated process of figuring out grid size and location particular to each set.

Sadly, though I completed the project a couple of years ago, through technical difficulties, we haven't yet been able to reconnect the indexes with their corresponding CAT records.  I am, however, slowly but surely putting them up on our website.  Check them out if you're interested:  Not the most beautiful of maps ever made, index maps nonetheless offer a window into our collection, and our collection into the world.


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ZeeMaps is a fun map app on the web.  I first used it about six months ago to map out potential apartments for my daughter to investigate before her transfer to Baton Rouge, LA.  Since she is about to undertake another six-month, engineering move, I pulled up ZeeMaps again to plot one potential work locale, and found it much easier to use this time.  Now you  can hover over each bubble to expand the information for each entry.


Based on Google maps, ZeeMaps allows you to pinpoint the location you areBlogImage.png interested in and place identifying bubbles on the map using the street address of each apartment.  You can also place location bubbles for your work address, potential grocery stores, pharmacies and churches, all color-coded for easy identification.  Having all these locations mapped out can give you a snapshot of how you might travel through your daily existence in a new location.


For power users, ZeeMaps can map Excel spreadsheet locations.  Put your addresses with other critical data in a spreadsheet and import it to ZeeMaps.  ZeeMaps will automatically mark a Google map with your location and content.  You can create wikimaps (to allow others to comment and mark), crime maps, and housing maps. ZeeMaps  offers an international geo-coding web service as a trial usage.  The service returns a set of latitude and longitude coordinates for any given city, state and country combination.

Who Makes the Map

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Earlier this year, voters in southern Sudan passed a referendum to establish an independent state called the Republic of South Sudan.  I hadn't heard about it until my boss forwarded a link to the Guardian's new world map  I was surprised; I'm not ever glued to world news feeds, but still, it seems like I should have come across the announcement sooner.  I gaped at the map for a while, sputtering, "I don't have shapefiles for that!" and feeling a bit of cartographic panic.  In an instant, all of our world maps (which have seen numerous changes over the last decade, anyway) are out of date and I'm scrambling online to find digital spatial data of the new nation.

Few of the standard map providers (such as National Geographic via Bing maps, Google Earth, Yahoo maps) show South Sudan in their products.  Wikipedia has an extensive article about the republic, and does show a map.  But who made the map?  Clicking into the wikicommons gave me the user name of the contributor, but didn't tell me anything about what person's sources or knowledge about South Sudan.  Comparing the new map to an older one of Sudan, it looks as though the new country is a confederation of 10 pre-existing states, which makes the process of drawing a new boundary easier, and doesn't require "expert" input.  But if it hadn't followed existing lines, what then?  How would the boundary be drawn, and who would record it?  It seems like there should be an international body (much like ISO) who collects that information, certifies it, and makes it available.  Maybe that body already exists, and I just don't know who they are.  But I think most mapmakers end up kind of scratching their heads and doing the best they can with what they know.

So for now, I'll update my GIS files based on what I've found and wait for the "official" files to be released by....whomever it is that makes the map.


What's in a Name?

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Red_Hot.pngIn taking inventory this summer, I discovered that the Maps Library has 132 books with the term "place name" in the title. Not so obviously "place-name" are books like How Georgia got Her Names, From Red Hot to Monkey's Eyebrow, or Scratch Ankle, USA. So, if you add these related books to the gazetteers which also deal with the names of locations, locales, and localities, at least 17% of our on-site books and atlases deal with named areas. Why do we need so very many place-name volumes, both national and international?

We would be lost without them, quite literally. Named places generally designate certain latitudes and longitudes.  These toponyms are mappable, findable, and relatable. Historians and genealogists use place-name books to identify old, forgotten towns, ghost towns, towns that experienced name transformations, and even towns whose residents choose a name they like better, causing government maps to have an "official" name that isn't used at all. Some towns are simply no longer habitable, like the coal-mine-burning town of Centralia, PA, or are no longer needed for industry around closed mines or near decimated forests.

Since the U.S.Post Office has a rule limiting names to only one place per state, namers have had to become very creative at times.  Also, early namers did not necessarily have the time to deliberate or choose an appropriate name. Places had to be named quickly to be identified on land deeds or placed on maps. Government mapmakers would ask the closest settler to identify a name. Consequently, many place-names are family names like Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for US Post Office.bmpSnellville, GA, sentimental names like Sunnybrook, KY, optimistic names like New Enterprise, PA, and respected names like Jefferson, IA.

But there are connotations to be gleaned from place name as well.  A glaring example is the "Bridge to Nowhere," a specific location in Alaska connecting the 50 residents of Gravina Island with the mainland town of Ketchikan, and this location has evolved to connote "pork-barrel" spending.

The starting point for any place name is the language from which the name was derivedAlgonguin.png.  The original settlers, the Algonguin, named the region of Illinois, which means "tribe of superior men."   Las Palomas, AZ, was named by the Mexicans for the flocks of white-winged "doves" that came each summer.  And New Orleans was named before the French had even set foot or sailed past the site of this town which was to be named in honor of the patronage of regent Duc d'Orleans.

Even chemical elements have been used to name a location when that resource has been found in abundance.  Examples include Barium Springs NC, Carbon, Thumbnail image for barium pic.jpgWY, and Mercury, NV. Cedar Springs and Sun City, AZ, give evidence to the abundant resources found there.  Pecan City, GA was named for the local flourishing pecan industry.  Deerfield, IL, was named for the abundance of deer in the area.  Spanish and French pioneers, mostly Catholic, left their religious stamp on the names throughout the United States: San Bernardino, CA and St. Louis, MO, are just two.  Westward expansion called for fortification to make the area safe to inhabit, so we have cities like Fort Wayne, IN and Fort Lauderdale, FL.

It will be interesting to see if and how the advent of Location Based Services (LBS) Thumbnail image for foursquare.pngimpact the chronicling of lost, forgotten, or no longer inhabited named places.  Not that you would expect to find a Foursquare "check-in" at burning Centralia, but app-savvy people may be able to upload photos, journal entries, and data bites that relate to a pinpoint on a web-based map and build a story around the bare earth that once was a town.

(Place-name online resources can be found on the Geography research guide.)

CIA Maps

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This morning I received yet another request for a CIA map.  CIA maps are among the more heavily used maps in our library, and I found myself speculating why these maps might be so popular.  Several ideas surfaced, not the least of which is that they are generated frequently by an authoritative source and are widely accessible in print and digital formats. 

CIA maps are not copyrighted, so they are conveniently used in publications and papers without worry of copyright infringement. Most of the maps are issued in 8 1/2 x 11 format and are easily scanned on widely available scanners.Egypt.jpg

They can also be used as a "portal" to other maps.  If you do not know what countries are parts of the Middle East or the Horn of Africa, you can find those regional maps to identify the correct countries and their proximity to geographical regions in the news.

They are simple maps - often depicting basic political and geographic features, also depicting social, demographic, and other themes such as religion, vegetation, water resources, and land use - that are generally understandable. 

Found quickly in our library catalog using: "Central Intelligence Agency" as author with "map" and the country's name as other limiting criteria, a successful search can also be launched in Google, specifically the US Government Search.  This Google search will most likely place you in the CIA Maps and Publications website, and if the map is offered here, it should be found in our library.  As a Federal Depository Library, Penn State receives all current copies for public use.

Our 1,309 CIA maps have been checked out of the University Libraries over a total of 1,000 times in recent years, with in-house uses far in excess of that.

Genocide maps

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I was reading book reviews today and the website for the Genocide Studies Program at Yale caught my eye.

I'm not sure if under "normal" circumstances this would have caught my eye - but I happen to currently be reading a book by a South African journalist who covered the genocide in Rwanda. I was in the middle of my college years when the tragedy in Rwanda happened and like most college students I didn't pay close attention to what was going on. But I know about it now after reading this book and I have to say I'm pretty appalled at what human beings can and will do to each other. I hope sites like this will educate those (like me) who aren't informed about these tragedies in history.

This site provides some great maps of regions across the globe which have been witness to this heinous crime.


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Sometimes I find really cool things like this:

I will buy some of these maps for the collection, they look really interesting. I can't wait to see them!

Some Friday fun...

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This is a really cool website of the map collection at the New York City subway website. Of particular note are the maps under the historical collection. Beautiful scans and tons of great maps! I love when I find sites like this!

Have a great weekend!

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