Geoblogger’s Blog

Geography, GIS, history, landscape, life

What is a map?

From time to time I am asked by students and others what a map is. It is an interesting question and it becomes increasingly difficult to answer. On the web site Maphist, that is by the way a good resource for discussions on old maps you can find over 300 definitions of what a map is defined as during the last 300 years. See also John Krygier’s blog on the topic

I usually include the definition made by ICA (International Cartographic Association) in 1995, but according to the Maphist site it is originally from an earlier source. The ICA celebrates by the way its 50th anniversary this year. Here is the definition:

“A symbolised image of geographic reality, representing selected features or characteristics, resulting from the creative efforts of cartographers, and designed for use when spatial relationships are of special relevance (quoted in Michael Wood, ‘Whither maps and map design’, Bulletin of the Society of Cartographers, xxvii (1993), p. 8).”

I like the fact that creative efforts are included. It means that uncreative cartographers are not making bad maps, they are not making maps at all!! Cartographers should be creative of course. But as a geographer, I’m also sympathetic to¬† the text in the Dictionary of Human Geography (also from the above mentioned Maphist site).

“The map image is a structured cartographic representation of selected spatial information. The image becomes a map when represented physically (e.g. classical topographic map, or braille), virtually (e.g. on a computer screen) or linguistically (e.g. verbal or written spatial instructions) (R.J.Johnston, Derek Gregory and David M.Smith, The dictionary of human geography (3rd edition, Oxford, 1994)).”

The key is selected, and that a map can be virtual and linguistic. Not everybody would agree. I had that discussion recently. Some still prefer to think of maps as something exclusively printed on paper. That is to make it too easy in my opinion because it excludes cartographers when it comes to discussing the look of virtual maps. This is something that cannot be left to the software engineers alone, we see the results everyday on the web.

During the better part of the first 50 years of the ICA the definition of a map was probably not to problematic, but during the coming 50 years spatial information will be used in many ways and the concept of the map will be stretched. Let’s stretch it and do not abandon the many ideas achieved in cartography over the centuries. OK, I realise that we cannot use 18th century ideas with new techniques. No one thought of 3D-visualisation when maps were engraved on copper-plates.

ICA 50years

ICA 50years

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