Cartographic Resources on the Web

Cartography, a word that is derived from the Greek words chartis and graphein. When translated these words mean map and write. Cartography is the technical term for mapping, or the study and practice of making maps. Maps display the spatial distance between the tangible, such as bodies of water and land masses, as well as the intangible, such as country borders. Because of this, cartographers combine both science and aesthetics to provide a visual interpretation of both physical and abstract information. Today’s cartography is intertwined with Geographic Information Science (GIScience) and has provided many of the theoretical and realistic ideas behind Geographic Information Systems.

The earliest maps date back to the late 7th millennium BCE and consisted of wall paintings showing communities and bodies of water. The Babylonians in 9th century BCE created the oldest existing map of the world, though historians believe there may be older ones that either have not been found or have not survived. These early maps, including ancient Chinese, Greek, Roman and Indian maps where roughly to scale though often not spatially correct. European cartographers rectified this in between the 15th and 17th century by developing new surveying techniques and equipment, most notably the magnetic compass, telescope and sextant. From this point forward, cartographers began developing sea charts, world maps and the first globe of the Earth, created in 1492 by German cartographer Martin Behaim.

There are currently four major types of maps – general, thematic, topographic and topological. A general map is made with the lay person in mind and contains large varieties of information, including bodies of water, borders, roads, major land marks and railway systems. A thematic map is geared more towards a specific audience, showing only particular types of information such as county maps or agriculture dot maps which show levels of crop production. These maps are extremely useful for both interpreting spatial information as well as cultural and social data. While topographic maps rely heavily on scale to display information such as elevation or terrain types, a topological map tosses scale out the window in an effort to efficiently show specific routes or relational information. Topological maps are most often used when detailing layouts of fairs, subway systems or bus lines.

Map design makes the needs of the map’s audience the upmost priority. Cartographers strive to make the intent of the map clear upon glancing at it and provide enough valuable information to make the map both useful and mentally stimulating. One of the biggest hurdles for cartographers is simply naming a location on a map. Due to transliteration and transcription issues, as well as political issues when countries officially change their names, it can be rather difficult to decide what to call a country, city or town. For example, many cartographers continue to call Myanmar Burma because they do not recognize those in power who chose to change the name as legally allowed to do so. There are also several ways to translate names, the best example of this being the Yemeni city of Mocha, which has at least five different English translations. When it comes to the symbols used in maps only the border, compass rose, overview map, bar scale, projection and sources are required to appear. Other symbols used, such as those for railways, parks or borders are left up to the cartographer based on the type of information he or she wishes to convey. Lastly, an interesting map depends entirely on the cartographer’s ability to recognize when generalization or annotation is best. Using text within a map not only takes up space but also can clutter the design, and therefore the map maker is left with literally thousands of judgment calls on what information to include and what to expect the map reader to understand.

The creation of lithographic and photochemical processes has allowed cartographers the ability to show fine detail and has significantly reduced the time it takes to reproduce maps. Perhaps the biggest advance for cartographers has been the computer, along with plotters, printers, scanners and stereo plotters. These electronic devices, along with their respective advances in software, have drastically shortened the time needed to create a map as well as allowed for the repurposing of existing maps by superimposing new data. While the first maps were painted on walls and sketched onto parchment, today’s maps utilize modern technology such as CAD and GIS to produce accurate and resourceful maps that are available to anyone. This not only creates limitless possibilities for the kinds of maps cartographers can make, but also allows researchers and the public access to unbelievable amounts of information.

Cartography Resources: