It's International Map Year
The value of maps in our lives
14 July 2015
This year is International Map Year.
In my role as a reader’s assistant at the Library, I am privileged to work closely with both our collections and our readers, and to see the myriad ways in which our collections are used and interpreted by others.
Maps, I have observed, can engender a particular kind of response in people—intense examination followed by a wish to share and discuss discoveries with others.
That maps are highly valued, communicative and affective cultural artefacts is an observation that has been made by many (and more learned) others than I.
As J.B. Harley writes in the introductory volume to The History of Cartography:
‘As mediators between an inner mental world and an outer physical world, maps are fundamental tools helping the human mind make sense of its universe at various scales. Moreover, they are undoubtedly one of the oldest forms of human communication. There has probably always been a mapping impulse in human consciousness…’
We humans, in other words, are inherently mapping creatures. Paper and screen; inherited, revised, invented; beautiful and plain: across cultures and eras, we continually and compulsively create, collect, collate and share maps of all shapes, sizes and formats.
The National Library has an extensive map collection. My colleague, Erika Mordek, recently created a beautiful slideshow for the Library’s Main Reading Room that showcased some of our special and unusual holdings. I have included some of the images from the slideshow here.
My favourite map? One not held in the Library’s collection, I’m afraid. In fact it no longer exists, except as a kind of blueprint in my memory. It’s an amalgamation of the many dirt maps I remember from my childhood, drawn by my father on our farm.
‘Here is where I’ll need you to be when the sheep first come over the rise—at the top of the hill near the old snow-gum,’ my father would say as he drew lines and circles; ‘here’s the gate to open’; ‘here’s the trough you’ll need to check’. These maps, exercises in visual (and verbal) brevity, allowed me, as I leaned over my father’s shoulder, to ‘see’ how the narrative of the muster would unfold in time as well as space.
Such maps make up the other great map collections in our lives—those of memories and imaginations, perfect and impossible representations of worlds that no longer or will never exist.
Those supreme cartographers of the imagination, writers, have long been fascinated by, and bequested to their readers, many of these kinds of maps. Think of A.A. Milne’s Thousand-Acre Woods, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.
Think, also, of the vivid depictions of childhood space in David Malouf’s 12 Edmondstone Street, the unsettling landscape of Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, and that uncanny river-world of Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda.
I leave you with an amusing mapping passage from literature. I’d love to hear what your favourite maps are, or map-related stories. Post about them in the comments below. Happy International Map Year!
“What do you consider the largest map that would be really useful?”
“About six inches to the mile.”
“Only six inches!” exclaimed Mein Herr. “We very soon got to six yards to the mile. Then we tried a hundred yards to the mile. And then came the grandest idea of all! We actually made a map of the country on the scale of a mile to the mile!”
“Have you used it much?” I enquired.
“It has never been spread out, yet,” said Mein Herr: “the farmers objected: they said it would cover the whole country and shut out the sunlight! So we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”