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The resources in this primary source set are intended for classroom use. If your use will be beyond a single classroom, please review the copyright and fair use guidelines.
To help your students analyze these primary sources, get a graphic organizer and guides: Analysis Tool and Guides
Maps are much more than geographical representations of places. In addition to teaching geographic understanding, maps illustrate change over time. They can tell us about the people who made them, the times in which they lived, and what they knew and didn’t know. Maps can also make an argument. Maps have been used to claim new territory, to insult rivals and to attack competitors. Analyzing maps helps students discover new topics to explore further, and can support the development of critical thinking skills that they can apply to other representations of the world.
These maps were all brought together by the World Digital Library (WDL), a project that presented materials from different cultural institutions around the world.
Although the maps in this primary source set represent geographic areas from across the globe and date from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries, the items in this collection lend themselves to observation and comparison. When analyzing maps, the following characteristics can be considered.
Examining the parts of a map lays an important foundation on which to construct new understanding. Most maps have a title, which often includes information about when the map was created. Maps have orientation, which includes compass direction and geographic relationships within an established area. The source, or author, of a map often gives insight about its intended purpose and reason for creation. Maps may have a legend explaining the symbols used and grids to show lines of latitude and longitude.
The map scale shows how distance is represented and ensures that each object on the map is re-created proportionally. It is important to understand how to read the map scale in order to recognize distortions caused by transferring objects from a round Earth to a flat map. Large-scale maps, like A Plan of the Estate, show smaller geographic areas in great detail. This particular map, designed to show land ownership, provides insight into the economic activity of a plantation. In comparison, small-scale maps, like A Chart of the Gulf Stream, show larger geographic areas in less detail.
In addition to providing geographical data, panoramic maps give the viewer a sense of terrain, landscape features, street patterns, individual buildings and transportation systems. These maps record the evolution of cities, illustrating the development and nature of economic activities, educational and religious facilities, parks, street patterns and widths, and transportation systems. The panoramic map View of Quebec identifies key sites throughout the city which emphasize its role as an administrative, hub, as well as a religious center.
As mapping techniques improved, some maps evolved from illustrating the geography of an area to recording the development of communication and transportation systems such as the location and distribution of railway lines, road networks, canal systems, and human settlement or migration patterns. Using a trail of footprints, the Sigüenza Map documents the path the Aztec traveled as they migrated from Aztlán to Tenochtitlan. In another example, the 1853 Emigrant’s Guide to North America shows the distribution of German speaking communities in the United States. Communication and transportation maps show how humans have interacted with and affected the environment.
By integrating details found on a map with prior knowledge, students can form theories about the people who created the map, and what their point of view might have been. During the European Age of Discoveries, dating from the late fifteenth century to the seventeenth century, Europeans were primarily concerned with determining the outline of the continents as they explored and mapped the coastal areas and the major waterways. Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map represented a huge leap forward in knowledge. It was the first map to clearly depict a Western Hemisphere, labeled America, separate from Asia, as well as showing the Pacific as a separate ocean. The map forever changed the European understanding of the world, which was previously divided into three parts: Europe, Asia and Africa. Another world view is presented in the traditional Korean atlas, the Ch’ŏnha chido or Atlas of the World, which depicts a China-centered view of the world. These two maps illustrate how maps can be used to express particular points of view.
Analyzing maps from different places and time periods provides insight into the people who made the maps and how exploration and travel impacted what they did and did not know about the world. By exploring maps as primary sources, students can construct understanding of the cultures and biases that have shaped how nations and peoples perceive and interact with the world. The tremendous story of the world in which we live is told piece by piece in each map.