I’ve started collecting maps. I’m not looking for rare or antique maps. Those don’t really interest me. Instead, I’m looking for maps that capture different periods of time — what cities used to look like 100 or 200 years ago.
The maps I’m collecting don’t have to have been created 100 or 200 years ago (though it would be nice if they were). What’s more important to me is historical accuracy. Maps — and how they evolve — are a reflection of history. They show what areas were developed, what areas were important, what areas weren’t important, and how the people of that era viewed the universe.
My interest in maps began in 2001 when I helped build interactive maps based on 2000 census data for USA Today‘s website. I worked on the project with an all-star team of data reporters. And we figured out how to pour census data into maps to show the different demographic trends that were taking place in the U.S. People could also use the maps to find out the latest census data in their neighborhood. They were able to drill down from the national level to state, county, census tract, and block levels.
These maps marked the first time people could easily access census data. And they marked my first foray into geographic information systems (GIS), which I grew to love. Maps are a powerful tool that can be used to visualize data, discover trends, detect problems, and find solutions to critical problems.
I learned about the finer details of map making during this project. And the biggest thing I learned was that most of our maps are wildly inaccurate. Imagine removing the peel of an orange in one piece and flattening it. That’s essentially what map making is. To make up for the distortions of moving from three dimensions to two dimensions, map makers came up with projections.
In theory, projections “inflate” the two-dimensional map to make it more accurate. In reality, most projections improve certain aspects of maps. But they remain wildly inaccurate at placing things where they’re actually supposed to be. One of the most popular projections is the Mercator projection. This projection actually made it easier to navigate the ocean. But it does a terrible job of showing the relative size of land areas. Greenland, for example, is the same size as Africa in Mercator projections. And if you learned nothing from “The West Wing” and map projections (I saw this when it originally aired and fell on the floor seeing that the thing I had just learned about at work had become a scene on the show), just know these two things:
- Africa is a continent that is MUCH bigger than the island of Greenland.
- Germany “isn’t where we think it is.”
As much as I enjoy geeking out about maps, I don’t worry about projections when I buy a map. Instead, I focus on story, price, and personal connection.
I like maps that tell me a story. The story can be as simple as “wow, look at how this city has (or hasn’t) changed.” But I need to be intrigued by a map before buying it.
I also need to have some sort of personal connection to the map I’m buying. I like getting maps of cities or states that I’ve lived in or spent a significant amount of time in. A random but interesting map of Miami wouldn’t appeal to me. I haven’t spent enough time there to appreciate a Miami map. I would love an old map of Las Vegas, though. Even though I haven’t (formally) lived there, I’ve spent enough time there that it feels like another home.
Price is also an important consideration. I know that I’m going to spend a lot of money framing the map (usually more than the cost of the map itself) to both preserve and display it. So I really don’t want to spend much money on the map itself. But I have to spend enough money to get a map I like.
It’s hard to find that sweet spot. I generally do well at antique stores. I don’t worry about how rare the map is. I just want maps that I like. And because I’m taking steps to preserve them, there’s at least a chance that decades from now, they might be more scarce than they are today.
Most importantly, these maps bring me joy. I like shopping for them. I like framing them. I like displaying them. And I love the stories they tell.
So as you ponder your journey through the collectibles space, make sure you enjoy the process. This is supposed to be fun. Make sure you have some.