“What is important about assigning a geographic reference to data is that it then becomes possible to compare that characteristic, event, phenomenon, etc. with others that exist or have existed in the same geographic space. What were previously unrelated facts become integrated and correlated.” —Karen Kemp1

Spatial literacy is a core competency to maps and mapping: an ability to read maps as a secondary source, as a primary source, or read texts for spatial clues. Maps aren’t simply containers for spatial information—they carry particular ways of looking at the world, including the very maps we use on our devices today.

Map Categories

Maps tend to fall into one of three categories. Narrative maps exist not to render data, but to provide visuals tied to a spatial argument. Many texts, for example, have spatial components that could be rendered into a narrative map. Classes might map the movements of a character through space, for example, or track architectural styles across space. Thematic maps display variables on a map, often rendering data on top of a base map (such as Census tract or county-level patterns) or occassionally distorting spatial accuracy to illustrate scales (such as a cartogram). Deep maps exist to map place rather than space. We refer to space as anything that can be referenced by a coordinate system. For example, Fort Collins exists in space at 40.5853° N, 105.0844° W. Place, on the other hand, is how people create meaning out of space. Wounded Knee exists in space, but is also a place fraught with contested meanings. Place might be highly stylized in its representation as well. Consider the famous New Yorker cover form 1976:

The View from New York

The View from New York

Reading Maps

Break into groups and become familiar with a variety of the maps below:

In your groups, try and answer these questions for each project you look at:

  • What maps stood out to you and why?
  • Which maps would be good examples to show students? Why so?
  • Which maps were the worst? What made them the worst?
  • How do these maps drive interpretation? How do they carry narrative weight?
  • What categories do these maps fit into (thematic, narrative, or exploration)?
  • What’s the audience for these maps? How effective is their interface?

  1. Quoted in Stephen Robertson, “Putting Harlem on the Map,” Writing History in the Digital Age, edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki (University of Michigan Press, 2012)