Analyzing Maps

Analyzing a map is a skill, and it takes practice and time to master, like learning to ride a bike or play an instrument. Analyzing a map is a process of gradual figuring out, of teasing out meaning bit by bit.

To help you think about maps more broadly and to help you start reading maps with a critical eye, we've developed the illustrated guide below. Click in the middle to view it full screen. Click here to print or download the guide as a pdf.

You can also start with the exercise below:

☞ First Pay Attention

Part of our task is to develop methods to notice things in the map and make connections. Spend a good period of time with a map. To start, begin with 20 uninterrupted minutes. Set a timer. Do not be tempted by all the distractions around you. Do not check your gizmo phone. This is about sustained concentration.

It might feel like such a long time with one document or maybe it will go by quickly. Maybe you feel the difference between concentrating on something vs. something captivating you.

Write Down Your Observations

What are you doing during this time? Writing down what you see! Writing will help you notice things and think through and link ideas. Don't worry if your observations are "right" or "wrong". This is just a process to get you thinking. Worry will only paralyze you.

As a starting point, ask yourself these questions while looking at your map:

∙ What attracts your eye?

∙ What is being emphasized? What is being ignored?

∙ Can you find places where the map is not telling the truth? Bending the truth? Try to find a lie in the map.

∙ Who made the map? Who is the map's intended user or viewer? What might be the mapmaker's agenda?

∙ When was the map made? What was going on in history at that time? Is the map responding to or influenced by that history?

Read books that analyze maps (you could start with some of these). Examine the types of questions the author asks the map. How does he or she use the map to make an argument? Looking at many examples of how maps are used in historical writing is often the best way to learn.

☞ Sketch the Map

Your hand may notice something your eyes did not.