Lines of Latitude: Telling the Story of Maps

Why do maps speak to us?

Maps have explanatory power. They are visualization tools which help us to comprehend the social and physical world around us. They orient us. They impose order on chaos. But maps are also based on subjective choices made by cartographers who employ visualization techniques to reduce complexity. Cartographers create meaning by simplifying the social and physical world.

Cartography is a varied visual tradition which reaches back thousands of years. It emerged in different places and created the diverse mappy universe which we will explore through this map blog. Maps offer insights, a greater understanding of the world around us – and also of the past. And they are a window into the incredible biological and cultural diversity on this planet we call home.

The University of California Library at Berkeley just started the soft launch of our German World War II Captured Maps spatial humanities project which involves digitizing rich collections with about 20,000 maps, chiefly issued by German mapping agencies between the 1880s and 1945. That project will last into 2022 and our initial posts will focus on telling stories related to this important project.

But the Earth Sciences and Map Library at UC Berkeley is also located in a particular place, the East Bay, at the edge of the vast San Francisco Estuary, in northern California. Our small Bay Area world is connected to the larger world through Oakland’s vast commercial port. Transportation networks sustain our lives at the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Commuter ferries whiz across San Francisco Bay. We are close to some incredible physical spaces, the Marin Headlands, Muir Woods, Point Reyes National Seashore, several ranges of the Coastal Mountains.

The Ohlone are the predominant Indigenous group of the Bay Area. Spanish colonizers and the European diseases they brought to northern California undermined Ohlone existence and culture. In the wake of the Gold Rush the California state government sanctioned the murder of Indigenous populations by local militia. By the 1880s, the Bay Area Ohlone population was dramatically reduced.

Historically this area has been part of larger geographical frames, for example the Southwest, the borderlands of New Spain, Alta California, and the Western United States. We will look at how historical change has affected northern California.

And we are planning to explore many other worthwhile places and topics–the larger mappy universe. That is a world filled with surveyors, cosmographers, explorers, topographic engineers, mapping agencies, globes, atlases, aerial photography, satellite images, geological maps and rhumb lines, in short many worthwhile things.

Right now we are still working from our home offices, separated from the physical collections at the Earth Science and Map Library, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. This also will be a place to publicize what is happening at the Earth Sciences and Map Library.

We hope you will find something enjoyable here and come along for the ride!

Bonita Dyess

Erica Newcome

Heiko Mühr

Susan Powell

Samantha Teplitzky