Advertising the Physicality of Old Maps

This morning, thanks to the magic of Twitter, I was alerted to an article on Slate about the maps at the Osher Map Library, at the University of Southern Maine. One of the things that the article points out, and which was the focus of Gretchen Peterson’s tweet about it (and, as I later realized, was the article’s alternate title and suggested Twitter text), was that not everything important about a map survives the digitization process.

“As soon as you turn a primary source into an image, you start to lose something,” Edney suggested.

Second (and more difficult to reconstitute on a computer screen) are the physical details of an object—its size, its smell, the grain of the paper. These are the features that can help us situate an object within its vanished lifeworld, showing us what it meant to those who made it, along with the ways it helped them make meaning from the world more generally.

If you know me at all, you won’t be surprised that I would agree with these sentiments. I’m always rambling about artsy aesthetic things, and I love print materials. But the article also made me wonder if there’s a way to recapture at least some of what is lost. The Osher Map Library, as the article points out, tries to photograph things like ragged paper edges or book bindings, which is a great idea.

I think it would make sense if a digitization project also included multiple photographs of each object, including wide and detail shots. Here, I’m thinking about the model used for selling prints online. Have a look at the way Axis Maps includes detail shots of their typographic maps, for example:


And here’s how National Geographic shows off its wall maps:


Potted plant sold separately.

Marketers want people to get a sense of the object they’re buying. Not just its informational content, but how big it is, what it’s made of, and what it’s going to feel like when it is in your hands or on your wall. They’re trying, insofar as a photograph will let them, to convey the physical aspects of the object. The focus on popular map sales is often aesthetic, rather than informational.

This sounds to me like the exact antidote to the Slate article’s comment about losing “the physical details of an object.” Nothing will substitute for seeing the real thing, to be sure, but it would certainly help to see a detailed scan of an old map alongside beautiful shots that highlight the paper grain, the impression made by the press, and how large it is — and here I am thinking about the part of the article that says,“researchers are still sometimes shocked when they request an item only to find that ‘you have to put eight tables together to unroll it.’” It’s tough to get a sense of the size of objects when they’re all on screen, and sometimes being able to imagine details like that are actually important in a research project.

Photography like this will help to stimulate viewers’ imaginations, helping them fill in the blanks imposed by not being able to hold the object in person.

Maybe some map digitization projects already do something this; I’m certainly not an expert on the subject, but at least so far all of the digitized maps I’ve seen have been single shots, capturing the object flatly. That’s certainly the most critical kind of imaging to do. And, of course, these libraries are usually on very tight budgets and are often lucky to get money to digitize maps at all. But, hopefully we’ll someday reach a point where some more effort can be applied toward imaging the map as a physical object, in addition to an information container, perhaps by borrowing a few pages from the advertising playbook.

On an unrelated note: this blog used to be pretty heavy on tips, tricks, and showing off map projects. It has, over time, begun also involving more idle and sometimes uninformed musings like the above. But I have no intention of abandoning the old type of content; merely supplementing it.