Car and Travel Aids: A Review of Maps and Cartography

Travel is exciting, but knowing where you’re going, how to get to where you want to go, and being able to understand the geography of a map can be crucial. Maps can even be fun, and they’re certainly useful!

What is Cartography?

According to University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), cartography is simply the production of maps and charts. More broadly speaking, cartography is creating models of the real world for a variety of purposes. Cartography and maps, according to the University of Colorado at Boulder, are unique because they are the primary way of both recording and communicating the natural world as well as political boundaries and traffic routes.  

History of Cartography

Cartography has a long history. According to Emporia State University, the oldest known maps are from 2300 BCE. Cartography in the ancient world was linked to the stars, and throughout history maps have varied in what was at their centers. For example, maps in Europe showed Jerusalem in the middle, as Jerusalem was the center of Christendom.

In modern times, maps tend to show the world in one direction, with no real “center.” The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) notes that their mapmaking division, the Cartography Center, has been in operation since 1941 and have used their intelligence operations to make more accurate and precise maps.

Types of Maps

Although most maps now show the directions uniformly and have no real center, there are still many types of maps. According to Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, there are three main types of maps:

  • Reference maps, which show broad information like geography, highways, borders and towns all on one map
  • Thematic maps, which show political boundaries, languages, characteristics, and almost any type of data on a physical location
  • Special purpose, such as navigational maps

Maps can also be topographical, or show physical features of the land and may show mountain elevations, water depths, or even forestation levels. These types of maps can be stand-alone maps or can have the features mentioned above overlaid onto them.

The Different Parts of a Map

Maps are important not only because they show the world, but also because their components are standardized so anyone can read them. Maps generally have five main components, outside of the actual drawing of the physical earth, according to Ball State University:

  • Title - this tells you what the map is showing you and where
  • Legend - this shows you any symbols or colors needed to understand the map’s features
  • Scale - this shows how large the actual area is compared to the map
  • Compass - this shows what direction the map is oriented to
  • Inset maps - these maps show larger detail on particular areas of the map, making details like streets and locations of interest easier to find

Although these elements are not all present on every map, they are important to understanding, as they are the keys to being able to read any map. Annenberg Learner also notes that in order to understand history, map keys including the legend, which is one of the most crucial pieces of a map, is essential.

Traditional Map Making

Maps have been made in various ways throughout history. According to Rutgers University, maps were traditionally made for certain areas of the world, not the entire globe, because the exploration of the entire world is a relatively recent phenomenon.

According to the Smithsonian Institute, ancient maps were made with stories about distant lands and astronomy as their main source material. These maps were not totally accurate, but were able to convey meaning, distance, and symbols of power.

Modern Map Making

Modern mapmaking is much more accurate than ancient map making but uses some of the same methods. Astronomy is still used to create maps, but mapping software and satellite images are helping to create more accurate maps.

Science Magazine also notes that the way we are using maps is changing. For example, how we use maps when we travel, such as with phones and GPS versus paper atlases, has changed the technology of map making and delivery.

Map Collections

Many libraries and archives have large map collections. Maps are excellent historical resources, and the Library of Congress has several map collections for various historical periods and research areas throughout both American and world history, many of which are accessible online.

Harvard University also has an extensive map collection, with over 500,000 items - many of which are available digitally or through a document delivery site. Some map collections, like the one at the University of Chicago, are more specific to a certain area, but others, like the map collection at Brown University, are more general in scope, time period, and geographical areas.

Fun and Educational Resources for Kids and Adults

Maps and cartography can also be great - and fun! - teaching tools for both adults and kids. Cartography is an important part of our history and how we understand the world, and being able to read maps is crucial for everyone. Also, learning about maps can be fun, especially when many educational activities both teach and entertain.

Resources for Kids

National Geographic has a list of resources for teaching map skills to elementary school students. Teaching kids about maps also helps with spatial understanding skills. The National Education Association also notes that maps can be used to teach children about geography, cultures, space, and politics, and they provide a list of resources and activities for children of all ages.

Resources for Older Children and Adults

The US Geological Survey has a vast array of map learning activities for high schoolers and adults. Teaching History has a list of resources for teaching history using maps, and the College Board has several Advanced Placement level activities for students using maps in a hands-on way. These resources can help older students and even adults learn more about maps and use them to think critically about politics, history, geography, travel, and more.