Order of Multitudes

What can a map tell us as a physical object, not just as a source of geographic information?

Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

When I’m examining a new map, I first look at who made it and where it was made. What was it produced for? Was it a commercial publication that had a price? Was it made for the government? Was it produced by someone who was known to harbor views outside the mainstream? I also like to look at the quality of what I’m looking at: Is this manuscript? Is it printed on high quality paper? Does that materiality signify something? Is the map extremely large? Is this a map expected to be very grandiose, or is it something miniographed off of some press in someone’s basement for a very specific thing? Those features can all tell you something about the map’s producers.

Then I look at how the information on the map is organized and what clues it gives to its authenticity or its slant. How dense is the information? Does the information seem uniform across the map? For example, a lot of maps, especially of Eastern Europe or of the southeastern Soviet Union, will have a lot of information, and then suddenly the amount of information for other areas will drop off or become very sparse. That tells you to examine things more closely, because the map only shows some portion of the story. Then I look at the geography, especially areas that have historic value or whose importance is portrayed, and that might tell me more about what information is there and what information is missing. Does the map exclude large portions of communities or people that could be represented?

If you look at Western European eighteenth-century maps and some from the late seventeenth century, particularly depicting the area around Crimea, the Black Sea, modern-day Turkey, and the Balkans, the maps themselves don’t change much because there wasn’t a lot of new information available. It was the same map made by different map producers, but the cartouche changed. A lot of people, especially non-literate people, received information from these images on the maps. Suddenly, there are images of people in stereotypical Ottoman-Turkish dress, with turbans, and possibly with easily recognizable white Christian slaves. This pictorial element demonstrates the perspective of the producers, and these images were not just exclusive to this region. There were depictions of Brazilians as cannibals, and maps of Africa depicted the “barbarism” along the Nile River. These images were included long after these myths had been debunked, not only because they helped sell the maps, but also because they projected  the image of savagery that needed to be “corrected” by Christianity. All of these images were very racist and xenophobic, and these cartouches spread the message that Christians needed to come in and “civilize” the area. 

At the New York Public Library, we have maps that are called the “Racial Colonies of New York” and there is one for Manhattan and one for Brooklyn. You can look at these from three different perspectives depending on how much background knowledge you have. Some people seem to think that these are products of the time of the Red Scare, in the early twentieth century. Others believe that these maps are trying to paint a picture of how urban design can create better living for ethnic communities. I try to use this background information to avoid using my own presuppositions and biases to read something on the map when it’s not actually there. It also is a good check to see why I am having a certain reaction to something on the map. 

If you look at a seventeenth- or eighteenth- century map of the United States, and you see that California is an island floating off the coast of the United States, you might think that this map is simply inaccurate, and the mapmakers didn’t know anything! But if you look at it with all of the background information first, and you see that it was produced by the cartographer of the King of France around 1720, then you might understand that California was not a big concern for early eighteenth-century France. Instead, you can ask, “what should I be looking at?” If you start with an analysis of information beyond the geographic information, then you can reduce your bias before you approach any of the map’s content. You avoid shutting yourself down mentally and missing what the map might actually tell you; the background information then allows you to ask why certain places or pieces of information are represented the way they are on this map.


Ian Fowler

Curator, New York Public Library

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Ian Fowler

Ian Fowler is the Curator of Maps and Geospatial Librarian at the New York Public Library. In addition to caring for the cartographic collections, he uses them in geographic information systems and creative pedagogy.

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