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Studying Historical Maps in the Vassar Classroom

By Philippe Thibault
Instructor, Department of Earth Science and Geography

Maps have been influencing and documenting history long before the written word. Maps are a basic and essential means by which humans communicate. The earliest of maps were no more than tentative sketches of the lay of the land. With time simple tools such as rulers and compasses added accuracy and precision to map creation. The invention of more sophisticated instruments such as telescopes, sextants, and clocks furthered our ability to document the location of our surroundings. Today, with computers and the latest in satellite technologies cartographers are charting the world in ways that were unimaginable only half a century ago. Historically, the science of cartography has evolved to meet the new challenges of our changing needs for maps and to adapt and make the best use of the new technologies available.

Today’s technological advances make it easy to overlook the progress that was accomplished one step at a time. Cartographer’s skills are at times overshadowed in the dazzling light of technology. However, advanced technology does not replace knowledge of how to create informative and effective maps. Maps are routinely judged by aesthetics. While many maps are truly works of art in their own right, we often lose sight that maps should also be judged based on their ability to communicate a message in the way the cartographer intended it to be received. Without basic cartographic knowledge (and with increasingly easy-to-use software), maps can be generated that give unintended messages. Cartographers have never been more essential as technology continues to facilitate the ability to generate maps.

During the Fall of 2006, students in Vassar’s Cartography class (GEOG 220) approached cartography from historical, design, and political perspectives. The historical perspective was highlighted by a unique opportunity created by the Vassar College Special Collections. Dr. Patkus selected a number of important maps related to America in concert with the 500th anniversary of the name “America” being printed on Waldseemüller’s map of 1507. The students worked with original maps dating back to 1550 to better understand their physical properties. They quantified the information printed on the map, and contextualized the map with regards to the historic events and views of the day. As a result of this study, the students have had a valuable in-depth understanding of cartographic research and a focused view of cartographic treasures at Vassar College.1

Working with the historical maps gives context to learning how to design effective maps. It contextualizes the importance of the communicative value of maps as well as the value of technological improvements affecting cartography and its role in communication. Since cartography will always evolve and change, these are valuable lessons that are applicable in the future. A major goal of the class was to suggest that ideas as well as ‘facts’ are communicated via the medium of maps. These ideas have changed how people perceive their world and as a result maps are not only a reflection of history but are indeed a catalyst that affects the course of history.

  1. Students included Shane Ausprey, Dylan Cate, Hannah Ewert-Krocker, Rachel Grant, Aletheia Higgins, Deborah Hobden, Andrew McCaughan, Daniel Orme, Eric Schwartau, and C.J. Szito. Each student wrote a caption for one map in the exhibit.