Academics and Research

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 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 2012, 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.

The tension that led to the Civil War, epidemic disease — particularly yellow fever — 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.

So Schulten enlisted some University of Denver colleagues to help her create, 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.

“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 DU’s Office of Digital Initiatives, 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,” says Schulten, whose research is featured in “Maps: From the Local to the Global,” the first exhibit in the new Anderson Academic Commons. “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 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.


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