After 40 years of work, the History of Cartography project is coming to a close. But with evolving modern technology and cultural perceptions about maps, UW researchers claim cartographers’ work is far from over. 

Project Director Matthew Edney said the founders of the History of Cartography project, Brian Harley and David Woodward, created the project to explore maps as cultural documents.

“Every map, no matter the degree of science involved, is a cultural document,” Edney said. “It’s a work of humanity.”

The University of Chicago Press is publishing the series in print, and it will be free to download online. The National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Science foundation and the University of Wisconsin supported the project with funding and workspaces.

The final volume of the project will explore the history of cartography in the 19th Century, Edney said.

It is the fifth volume of the project and will complete the six-volume series. Jude Leimer, the managing editor of the project, said she looks forward to publishing the final volume, which will bridge the gap between the volumes on the European Enlightenment and the 20th Century.

During the 19th Century at the early beginning of modern-day science, cartographers began to create the maps we recognize today. Digital maps, such as Google and Apple Maps, are based on paper maps from the 1800s, Edney said.

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But Edney said the past 200 years have created misconceptions about mapping — with the most pertinent miscalculation that maps are only about navigation. While navigation is the most common way for people to interact with maps, cartography has many other uses.

“When you get down to it, there’s no one thing called a map,” Edney said. “What we think of as a map is actually a whole variety of quite different things. They’re made for different purposes, they enshrine different kinds of spatial conceptions about what the world is or what the world ought to be.”

Pushing cartographers to think about the value of maps in a cultural frame caused their research to expand rapidly, Edney said. Research from this alternate frame created more questions to answer.

Daniel Huffman, a freelance cartographer and an associate lecturer at UW, said navigational maps are a very small fraction of what cartographers create.

Huffman explained people generally place more trust in maps than writing, but it’s still important to recognize that cartographers get to select what people know about a geographic region.

“When you make maps, you are controlling how people understand most of the parts of the world that they haven’t been to or seen,” Huffman said. “What you don’t put on the map is as important as what you do put on the map. If it’s not on the map, it doesn’t exist.”

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All the information about a geographic area can’t be included in one map, Huffman said, so cartographers have to choose what’s important to include.

Maps are powerful, Leimer said, and with that power comes control over resources. This sometimes results in biased maps, which give people in power control over how the public perceives foreign locations. Mapping can also give certain groups control over resources and power in situations that can result in inequity.

For example, this can often happen in mapping Indigenous communities But cartographers are trying to change that, Hoffman said.

In a recent project, Huffman worked on a map for a history journal. The map showed where an explorer traveled, and the team included labels of Indigenous tribes in the area to exhibit that the landscape was inhabited at the time. One small inclusion created an entirely different view of the exploration. Huffman said small changes like this can create large changes in people’s perspectives.

Leimer said Indigenous mapping projects are becoming more common. In the future, Edney said cartographers will have to work to democratize data to remove racism and sexism from maps.

Other future cartography work includes increased satellite imagery. In the past, Edney said satellites didn’t move quickly enough to detect rapid landscape changes. Now that satellite technology has improved, Edney said cartographers are able to identify forest fires using infrared detection.

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With improving technology, maps will become even more integrated into our daily lives, state cartographer Howard Veregin said. Companies like Google will be able to produce better maps using general data sets, Veregin said, making cartography more accessible to everyone.

Leimer hopes people who are inspired by the History of Cartography take the research further. In Edney’s opinion, the research has plenty of room to grow.

Though the future direction of cartography has a lot to explore, the history of cartography does, too. While the fifth volume will complete the History of Cartography series, Leimer said there is enough still unknown that another volume on the 21st Century may be warranted in the future.