1. GPS Mapping: Make Your Own Maps by Rich Owings (The Map Room)
  2. Making Maps: A Visual Guide to Map Design for GIS by John Krygier and Denis Wood (The Map Room)
  3. Playing with Trains by Sam Posey
  4. Walking with Your Ancestors by Melinda Kashuba (The Map Room)
  5. How to Lie with Maps, 2nd edition, by Mark Monmonier (The Map Room)
  6. From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim and Inflame by Mark Monmonier (The Map Room)
  7. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
  8. The Geist Atlas of Canada by Melissa Edwards (The Map Room)

GPS Mapping: Make Your Own Maps by Rich Owings

This is a book for people who want to get their hands dirty with mapping software and GPS units and generate maps from the combination of the two. Almost all the software covered is Windows-based, and the mapmaking part requires a GPS, so, as a Mac user who for some reason still doesn’t own a GPS unit, I was somewhat at a disadvantage while reading this book — I couldn’t try any of it out! But I can at least give you a sense of what you’re getting yourself into when you get this book.

Rich Owings is an outdoor enthusiast and the author of GPS Tracklog, a blog about GPS that focuses on reviews and outdoor use. For Owings, making your own maps means taking the tracks and waypoints generated by your GPS unit from your travels and plotting it on maps using software — and that’s the focus of GPS Mapping. This can be a lot of fun, and even useful — as he points out, sometimes you can even plot a hiking trail with greater accuracy than the topo map!

After introductions to the use of GPS and digital map data sources, both online and on CD-ROM (this material is very helpful, and very interesting, but too brief, and could be expanded), Owings delves into the meat of his books: step-by-step descriptions of how to use a GPS receiver with nearly two dozen software packages, with the pros and cons of each. It’s awfully comprehensive, and awfully impressive, and no doubt useful.

(Personally, I prefer a big-picture approach to software documentation — fewer step-by-step instructions, more general examples. I thought there were too many screenshots of menu items, but not enough of the software’s imagery. But I also know many people for whom the step-by-step approach and close focus is essential, so I’m probably in the minority.)

But Owings’s approach — essentially, providing a user’s manual for the software in question — is not without its limitations. First, as new versions of the software are released and old software goes obsolescent, the book will get dated very quickly. Technical manuals, which in rapidly changing fields can be outdated before they’re even published, depreciate like a new car. Fortunately, Owings is posting updates on the book’s website — a reasonable fix. The second limitation is that there’s no way that the average user is going to use each program Owings describes: some are specific to one GPS brand, for example. For many readers, much of the book will go unused.

But, having said that, these limitations are the fault of technical manuals as a genre, rather than a shortcoming of this particular book. If you’re the outdoorsy sort, and you’d like a detailed guide to the full mapping potential of your GPS unit or a detailed survey of the available software, then this is your book. But GPS Mapping’s technical focus makes this a hands-on manual, not a casual read — i.e., have a GPS unit!

I received a review copy of this book.

The Map Room, February 10, 2006

Making Maps: A Visual Guide to Map Design for GIS by John Krygier and Denis Wood

[This is a review of the first edition. The third edition came out in 2016.]

I love this book. It’s just so neat.

Although Making Maps is aimed at a GIS audience (just look at that subtitle), this is not a book about GIS. (But it’s certainly for GIS.) Nor is it limited to the GIS pros. Rather, it’s a book that lives up to its title in the broadest sense: it’s about making maps not in the technical sense, but in the conceptual sense. As such, it’s applicable to everyone with an interest in mapmaking, regardless of their professional level or the software they use to make their maps. Even people who make maps with pen and ink — which is, I suppose, how we all started, pros and hobbyists alike — will learn a great deal from this book.

Making Maps is a profoundly visual book. In a way, it’s all illustrations and sidebars and captions, with very little text in any kind of linear narrative. Its chapters outline the choices that a mapmaker must make when creating a map: technical choices like projection and scale; more artistic choices like colour — with, of course, numerous examples. When representing data (for example, showing poverty rates by geographic area), the authors discuss the use of colour and hue. The map’s purpose also determines how it’s simplified — no map can include every detail, so what detail do you include, what do you exclude, and what do you highlight? Two maps of the same area with different purposes will look very different.

Krygier and Wood take us through these choices, but they also point out why some choices are better for some purposes than others. They don’t say, for example, that Mercator is a better projection than Robinson (or vice versa), but that each is best for a certain purpose. It’s a very practical book, all the more because it doesn’t sit on the fence.

Making Maps is both accessible and useful: everyone with an interest in maps will be able to take something away from it. But it’s also tremendously enjoyable reading. Highly recommended.

I received a review copy of this book.

The Map Room, March 29, 2006

Playing with Trains by Sam Posey

playing-with-trainsSam Posey’s Playing with Trains will not reveal anything new to anyone already involved in the hobby of model railroading, but for the general reader it’s a reasonably good, and evocatively written, introduction to the state of the hobby.

Posey, a former race car driver and a sports commentator, spends the first half of the book on his own model railroading history, from his childhood, with his mother helping him build his first layout, to his adulthood, when he hired someone to build his expansive Colorado Midland layout with his family. (My father read the book while he was visiting, and sniffed, as many in the hobby would, at the notion that he paid someone else to build his layout.)

The second half of the book is a new-journalism-style look at the state of the hobby, with Posey visiting a number of luminaries of the field — none of whom will be unfamiliar to anyone who’s been reading Model Railroader for the last couple of decades — and talking about their approaches. This part is a little light, a little superficial, but its great strength is crystallizing a schism in the hobby that I was only dimly aware of myself: the schism between the operators who focus on simulating, in miniature and in precise detail, the work — and paperwork — undertaken by real railroads (think Tony Koester) at the expense of scenery, and those focused on jaw-dropping scenery at the expense of realistic operations (think Malcolm Furlow, or even George Selios).

Most of us, naturally, are somewhere in the middle: we’d like to do more than run trains around in a loop, but we’d like to do more than run them on bare plywood. The Koester mode is in the ascendancy at the moment, to the extent that his book on layout design elements isn’t about the elements’ function in the abstract, it’s about replicating real things: for example, not about understanding how an interchange works in theory, but in copying a real interchange. This is a considerable change from the Armstrong mode, where understanding how real railroads work is the necessary first step, not simply slavishly replicating what really existed (without, I suspect, necessarily understanding why it existed).

Amazon | iBooks

April 25, 2006

Walking with Your Ancestors by Melinda Kashuba

I do other things besides this website; one of these is to volunteer at the local archives, a private organization covering the surrounding county that’s based in my town. As is the case with most archives, large and small, most of our clientele and research activities are centred on genealogical research; as is also the case, much of our holdings is not necessarily of obvious use to genealogists. Amongst that material is our collection of maps (which I have to go through and organize at some point); our latest accession is a nifty fire insurance map of our town dating from the mid-1930s. Since most of our focus is on genealogy, though, the following question might be asked at some point: “Well, Jonathan, these maps are all very interesting, but what are they good for?”

It’s that very question, hypothetical though it may be in my case, that Melinda Kashuba’s book, Walking with Your Ancestors: A Genealogist’s Guide to Using Maps and Geography, answers. While Kashuba, a genealogical researcher with a Ph.D. in geography, has the genealogical audience in mind, this book could, with a slight change in focus, easily serve as a general introduction to old maps held in American archives — how they were made, how to read them, and how to use them in your research.

In slightly more than two hundred pages, Kashuba covers a lot of ground. We get a lot about how to read old maps — including how to use a gazetteer, which is basic, and how to track down place names that may have changed or moved, which is not. We’re given a good deal of context behind those old maps: how counties were organized, how lands were surveyed, how topographic maps were made. We’re also introduced to the various kinds of map sources: cadastral surveys, county maps, military maps, and fire insurance maps. She even has a section on using GPS.

In her introduction, Kashuba argues that geography is more important to genealogy than history is — an ostensibly strange argument, but it’s hard to refute her assertion that place is central to genealogical research:

Genealogy is a geographically driven subject. There’s no question that history and historical events are important to tracing family trees; those names and dates are vital. But let’s face facts: Records are made and kept by location. That makes geography as important if not more important than history to the genealogist. Knowing where your ancestors lived is the key to finding “the really good stuff” in those records.

True enough, many of the researchers I’ve encountered have had trouble tracking down a name because they weren’t sure where to look. Adding maps to the search can suggest other avenues: if your great-great grandfather isn’t in this town, perhaps he’s in the town down the river — or perhaps he’s got records at the county seat. Among many other things, maps can suggest such connections.

Unfortunately, this book won’t be of much help in my archives; Kashuba’s book is American in scope. But this accessible, engaging book will no doubt be useful to genealogists across the U.S., and should probably be in every local archives’s reference shelf.

I received a review copy of this book.

The Map Room, May 8, 2006

How to Lie with Maps, 2nd edition, by Mark Monmonier

how-to-lieWhile reading this modern classic by Syracuse University geography professor Mark Monmonier, I was struck by how much common ground this book shares with the recent Making Maps by John Krygier and Denis Wood (reviewed here). Both books are about mapmaking choices, but where Krygier and Wood are fundamentally prescriptive — don’t do that; this is better — Monmonier is not only prescriptive but cautionary. Where Monmonier prescribes, it’s in the context of what the mapmaker intends: i.e., if you’re trying to present a point of view (or fool the public), here are some of the ways to do it. As a corollary, he is cautionary: watch out for maps that do this. How to Lie with Maps is as much a warning for map readers as much as mapmakers, the user as much as the designer.

All maps deceive, says Monmonier, because they must be selective in the information they present: projections distorts, angles or shapes; maps at small scale leave out detail included in large-scale maps; lines must be displaced, smoothed or simplified and area features simplified for readability’s sake. But, he writes, “[b]ecause most map users willingly tolerate white lies on maps, it’s not difficult for maps also to tell more serious lies” (p. 1). The reason for this is that maps have a dual purpose: not only to inform their audience, but also to impress them — to persuade, to make a point, to sell a product. It may be as straightforward as advertising suggesting that your store is in a convenient location, or that your rail line is more direct than it actually is. But it can also be as subtle as your choice of colour or shading; Monmonier spends quite a bit of time on choropleth maps and the impact of different class breaks. And it can be insidious: maps’ normative function makes countries assert disputed territorial claims (Kashmir, Argentine Antarctica) on postage stamps; maps deliberately in error to conceal secrets or fool the enemy; non-existent “trap streets” to catch plagiarism among your cartographic competitors.

Monmonier even provides eleven rules for developers trying to convince the town planning board (e.g., rule eight: “Distract with aerial photographs and historical maps”) — intelligence that can be used as much by the developers’ opponents and the planning board as the developers themselves. The point of the book is to raise awareness of these sorts of cartographic tricks, whether they’re used for good or for ill; the end result is an improvement in cartographic literacy. This puts How to Lie with Maps in the same league as Darrell Huff’s How to Lie with Statistics (no doubt the inspiration for Monmonier’s title), E. H. Carr’s What Is History? or any similar text on media and public relations. In other words, essential reading, if not a civic duty for an educated public essential to a democracy.

Amazon | iBooks

The Map Room, May 29, 2006

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim and Inflame by Mark Monmonier

When I was living in Edmonton, I heard the story of Chinaman’s Peak. In 1886, a Chinese labourer named Ha Ling, working as a cook in a mining camp near Canmore, Alberta, climbed a nearby mountain on a bet. The peak he scaled became known locally as Chinaman’s Peak; that name was given official status, based on historical usage, in 1980, but shortly thereafter a campaign began to have the name changed, on the grounds that “chinaman” was offensive and derogatory. By 1997, after a long debate, that name was dropped, and the peak — the northwest summit of Mount Lawrence Grassi — is now known as Ha Ling Peak.

It’s long since defunct, but a Canadian Pacific Railway station along its Kettle Valley line had its name changed in 1940: originally named after Field Marshal Philippe Pétain, the “Hero of Verdun” in the First World War, the station of Pétain was renamed Odlum due to Pétain’s role as head of the collaborationist Vichy government. (Ironically, the Pétain Glacier, in Alberta’s Kananaskis region, kept its name — but then its name was not under the purview of the CPR.)

from-squaw-titNeither of these anecdotes is in Mark Monmonier’s latest book, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim and Inflame, but they came to mind while I was reading it; there are many examples just like them throughout the text. This book is about contentious placenames — troublesome toponyms, as it were — and how mapmakers handle them. Though the title — and some of the media coverage — suggests a focus on the politically incorrect, such as derogatory ethnic epithets, gross anatomic or scatalogical references, or both, Monmonier’s focus is in fact much broader.

Besides the chapters on pejorative names and dirty words, there’s a chapter on replacing “white” toponyms with more traditional native names (e.g., Mt. McKinley vs. Denali, or Frobisher Bay vs. Iqaluit) and several chapters on contested toponyms — countries that erase the other’s names from their own maps in disputed regions like Cyprus, commemorative names that arouse controversy, and even campaigns to change or preserve the names of international bodies of water — like Iran’s vis-à-vis the Persian Gulf or, notably, Korea’s vis-à-vis the Sea of Japan, about which a letter-writing campaign is under way to have it renamed the East Sea.

That last one triggered a bit of déjà vu: I actually got one of those letters, from a Korean student who got confused about a map I linked to that called it the Sea of Japan and wrote me about it. Here’s an excerpt that may sound familiar to some of you:

Such an error in a well known website as yours comes as a surprise since we regard you as one of the world’s best.

Using a proper name for the body of water between the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago is not simply a question of changing the name of a geographical feature.

It is rather a part of national effort by the Korean people to erase the legacy of Japanese Imperialism and to redress the unfairness that has resulted from it. It is an absolutely mistaken thing to hear one side of story and follow. If we let this kind of things alone, it brings about a serious problem to disturb order of International society. …

As a member of VANK, I urge you to use “East Sea” to describe the body of water in question or both Korean and Japanese designation simultaneously (e.g. “East Sea/Sea of Japan”) in all your documents and atlases.

(Too bad I don’t actually make any documents or atlases.)

From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow is, at its root, all about what happens when placenames are contested, and how mapmakers respond to controversy. Much of that response is not only a result of changing mores — dealing with “Nigger,” and later “Negro,” in placenames as the terms became unacceptable — but also a result of changing how toponyms in general are being managed: for example, from state-level gazeteers to a national-level database that must bow not only to present-day sensitivities (reflected in government policy) but also include, as historical references, the very names that have been changed. It’s also about mediating interests: not only between the Koreans and the Japanese, for example, but also between those for and those against a name change. Dildo, Newfoundland and Swastika, Ontario kept their names; Whorehouse Meadow was eventually restored. It’s also about standardizing the naming process, both nationally and internationally.

Those expecting a bit of cartographic sniggering might well be disappointed by this solid and serious work, but I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a fascinating topic, and Monmonier’s writing is as engaging as ever. The University of Chicago Press clearly feels that this book has an appeal beyond academe: it’s priced quite aggressively. I think they expect to sell a few copies of this book, and I think it deserves to.

Read an excerpt online — it’s from chapter four, “Body Parts and Risqué Toponyms.”

I received a review copy of this book.

Amazon | iBooks

The Map Room, July 26, 2006

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

1491Just finished reading Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. Despite the title’s superficial resemblance to Menzies’s 1421 (a crackpot theory that the Chinese discovered America), Mann’s 1491 is a serious survey of new research on pre-Columbian Native Americans. The new, emerging consensus can be summarized as follows.

  1. There were more — a lot more — people living in the Americas prior to the Europeans’ arrival. Tens if not hundreds of millions of people.
  2. They were a great deal more sophisticated — in philosophy, politics, agriculture and science — than the old shibboleth of the “noble savage” gave them credit for. Much of the Amazon, for example, was not a wild place, but a vast orchard.
  3. Their societies were far more dynamic. Rather than existing in a time warp for millenia, civilizations rose, fell, and rose again. The Inca empire existed for a mere century before Pizarro’s arrival, for example. There was, in other words, history.

And then the Europeans showed up — and with them, smallpox — and everything went to hell. A series of epidemics nearly obliterated the population. Sweeping far ahead of European contact, the disease left a few paltry survivors unable to maintain their culture’s infrastructure. Civilization collapsed. Animal populations exploded on the leftovers of Native American agriculture. Forests swept over the landscape. The wilderness European settlers and explorers encountered was, in effect, a new development; the people they encountered were not savages but survivors.

1491 left me with a sense of just how much has been lost forever, and with a desire to read more about it. Not that I plan to learn Nauhatl and start a new career in Native American studies; I’m just irredeemably curious. Less-known, complex histories have always drawn my attention: it’s why I gravitated to modern French history, which is so complicated and messy but less studied, during my university career.

It also touches on some of the environmental history that I enjoyed so much in Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism. I believe these two books are the only works of history I’ve read since leaving my Ph.D. program in 1999; I haven’t been able to read much history for fun since then. But these books are wonderful.

Amazon | iBooks

September 23, 2006

The Geist Atlas of Canada by Melissa Edwards

Early on in The Map Room’s existence, we learned about a quirky feature emanating from Geist, a quarterly Vancouver-based literary magazine. Called Caught Mapping, it presented a map of Canada based on a whimsical theme that pointed to placenames that fit that theme — for example, “The Meat Map of Canada” has pointers to Lac Steak, Rump Cove and Mignon Corner. There were many others: maps of board games, house pets, automotive terms. There was a map for Margaret Atwood and a map for Stan Rogers. The feature proved very popular and went on to attract quite a bit of media attention, putting Geist on the map, so to speak. But I like to think that you heard about it here first.

geist-atlasNow those maps have been assembled in a book, The Geist Atlas of Canada: Meat Maps and Other Strange Cartographies, which offers a few advantages over the individual maps, at least as they’re found in Caught Mapping’s online archives. For one thing, they’re in colour. For another, facing each map is a bit of an explanation of some of the names on the map, changes since it was first published, and feedback from readers wondering why their favourite place names were left out. And, most usefully, all the place names are listed in an index at the back of the book.

Caught Mapping is essentially a work of toponymy: the modus operandi behind each map seems to be to choose a theme (for example, kitchen implements) and then searching a reference like the Geographical Names of Canada to find toponyms that fit that theme (for example, Spoon Lake). In some cases, the results turn up some very unusual placenames; in others, the association between the theme and the placename is not immediately obvious (for example, “Glenn” on the celestial map), and requires a little free association, if not a footnote. And some maps reveal placenames that sound like they’re named after someone famous, but in fact are named after someone local and otherwise forgotten.

To be honest, a collection like this can get a little repetitive. Some of the map themes are a little too precious, and each map (save two) is the same map of Canada (a “modified Geistonic projection” that is just laterally compressed) with an off-kilter compass rose. But there’s plenty here that’s entertaining and amusing. If you’re curious about unusual place names, and a bit of the history behind them, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this book.

I received a review copy of this book.


The Map Room, November 20, 2006