Media mashup: History professor blends a book and website for a study of maps
History Professor Susan Schulten had visions of a book brimming with lots and lots of maps. They would be detailed read more…
History Professor Susan Schulten had visions of a book brimming with lots and lots of maps. They would be detailed and complex, brought to life by bursts of color and precise shading—aesthetic treasures, really.
All well and good, except her editor told Schulten that Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Chicago Press), which was published in July, would not have large and lavish illustrations.
In the book, Schulten examines the rise of maps as analytical tools. Various crises in 19th-century American life, she says, accelerated the development of maps that analyzed rather than merely depicted data.
Epidemic disease, particularly yellow fever, the tension that led to the Civil War and the amassing of information by the U.S. Census Office all fostered the evolution of a different type of map.
“What is it about a map that is able to transform information or data into knowledge?” Schulten asks. “It’s that power that really lies at the heart of this book.”
But her explanatory prose could only go so far, especially since the maps in the book were reduced in size and printed in black and white. Schulten knew something needed to be done.
“When the book started to come together and I started to see the thematic structure, I realized that it hinged on the maps themselves,” Schulten says. “I know that sounds obvious, but I couldn’t make the argument I need to make without very, very detailed illustrations. Because these are subtle changes in representations, it’s a very visual argument.”
So Schulten enlisted some University of Denver colleagues to help her create mappingthenation.com, a website that allows visitors to view the maps in the book by chapter, by creator, and chronologically. The site includes all 130 of the maps mentioned in the book, not just the 50 or so maps that are shown. The site was supported by the Office of the Dean of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, as well as the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.
“I believe the site stands on its own,” Schulten says. “Anyone can come to this site and make sense of it—see a little bit about each map and navigate it. You don’t have to have read the book. I wish the book had every image in high color and resolution. That wasn’t going to happen. This, to me, is the next best thing.”
The site was designed by Erin Pheil (MA digital media studies ’02) and Josh Petrucci, owners of TimeForCake Creative Media in Frisco, Colo. Schulten collaborated on the concept with Alex Karklins, an instructional technology support specialist for the University’s Office of Teaching and Learning. John Adams and Chet Rebman from the Office of Digital Initiatives in Penrose Library added their expertise to the project. The maps were scanned by Dresha Schaden, in Digital Production Services, and comprehensively catalogued by Betty Meagher, who recently retired from Penrose Library.
“I’m very proud of the site,” Schulten says, “particularly because I had never collaborated with anyone in scholarship. And that was a thrill for me. We worked extremely hard, and the coordination that’s involved for something like this was very much a surprise for me. I didn’t know how many details and decisions were involved. And we had to do it by the time the book was released. It was a real deadline.”
The site also includes a blog where Schulten posts an entry on a new map every couple of weeks. An early July post titled “Charting the Flow of Political Power” showed the history of political power in a striking serpentine timeline created in 1880. Traffic on mappingthenation.com spiked when the post was linked by blogger Andrew Sullivan, of the Daily Beast.
The illustrations in Mapping the Nation include Edward Barton’s map of the 1854 yellow fever epidemic in New Orleans, the U.S. Coast Survey’s map showing the distribution of the slave population in the Southern states in 1861 and Francis Amasa Walker’s 1874 proportional map of foreign population compiled from the ninth U.S. census.
“The makers of these maps considered maps as a way not just to represent data, but to excavate the problems of American life,” Schulten says.