Reading Maps

First things first: reading maps can be intimidating, even to those who are more familiar with maps. As map librarians, we often come across maps of a subject or place we don't know that much about, and it is necessary to pause for a long moment with the map to understand it.

To begin overcoming the map scaries, we're going to explore some basic elements that you will likely come across on most maps. Oftentimes, these elements are like a set of clues that will help you read and understand the map. That's right, clues.


Do you know what the symbol to the right is called? With most maps giving priority to indicating which way north is, can you guess which line is likely pointing north? Why did you guess that line? If the cardinal directions are indicated by the longer lines (north, south, east, and west), can you guess what directions the shorter lines are for?

It's okay if you don't know the answers to these questions, yet. We're here to learn and hopefully have some fun while we're at it!


Most maps have a title which will be your first stop for basic information about the map: where and/or what.

The map below has a very decorative title (typography is the art and style of type) that tells you what the map is about or what it is communicating.

Can you find the title? What is the map about?


We're going to use the same map as above to talk about legends, because it is good practice in using your super powers to locate map elements.

A legend is the place that explains the map's symbology. Mapmakers use symbols to relay information and communicate ideas. Usually, legends are clearly marked with a title or a box to make them stand out from the rest of the map.

But then sometimes a legend is hidden where you least expect it and is totally unmarked. On the map above, can you the find where it explains the two types of lines used in the map? *Hint: look on the right side of the map.

What are the two types of lines?

Let's also look at a map with a more conventional legend, just so you know what to look for when you're on your own adventure:

The legend on this map isn't marked with a title, but it is boxed in to make it stand out.

What is the legend explaining?

This legend uses the symbology of a graduating color scheme to communicate the rates of malaria around the world.


Unless you're mapping a space that is literally the size of a piece of paper, a ratio will need to be used to map a large space onto a piece of paper; this ratio is the scale of the map. Here is an example of a mappy ratio:

1:10,000 inches | This means that one inch on a paper map is equal to 10,000 inches in real life. You read this ratio like this: "1 to 10,000 inches."

When maps include their scale, you will see it written out in a ratio, like above, or you will see it represented in a scale bar. The map below has multiple examples of how the scale of a map can be expressed. Can you find them?

This map includes a scale bar, a verbal scale, and a fractional scale (which are other ways to represent the ratio used to create the map). Using the information you've been given so far, can you identify which one is which?

Compass Rose

Okay, let's go back to those questions from our warm-up at the beginning and talk about compass roses. A lot of maps will use a compass rose to indicate their orientation, or which way is which.

A 4-point compass includes the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west).

An 8-point compass includes the cardinal directions + the four ordinal directions (north-east, south-east, south-west, and north-west).

Navigational maps may use compass roses that go even further than these directions and include the half-winds and quarter-winds. Can you figure out how many points a compass rose has if it includes the half-winds? And how many points if it includes the quarter-winds?

Let's look at a few different maps of California to see how compass roses are used on maps to indicate which way is which. California is a good example because it has a rather odd, long shape that can be hard to fit on a piece of paper. Sometimes cartographers (people who makes maps) will tilt California for aesthetic purposes or to communicate a certain point or perspective, but this can make it confusing to determine which way is actually north.

Locate the compass roses on the following three maps and figure out which way is north! How do each of these compass roses differentiate the north lines from the other directions?

Further Exploration

We covered the basic elements of maps to set you sailing on your map-reading adventures, but this is only the beginning. If you would like to go on a grand expedition, we recommend checking out our digital exhibit Cartographic Symbologies: The Art and Design of Expression in Historic Maps, which is just a bunch of fancy words for cool stuff.

Here you will be able explore maps based on all kinds of symbologies found within, such as animals, lighthouses, monsters, and ships, which is our way of demonstrating that maps are so much more than just showing where things are!

And because we love creativity and want you to make cool stuff, we went ahead and pulled out some of our favorite map symbols so you can use them in your own creations!