THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

19 October 2016

Map Reading in the 20th Century

In the 20th century maps truly arrived at people’s fingertips. People learnt to read maps and to use them for a wide number of pursuits, especially (though not exclusively) finding their way around.

The Ordnance Survey’s National Map Reading Week initiative is motivated by a concern that people have stopped being able to read maps in this age of automatic mapping (where people are instead increasingly read by maps). There is a strong feeling that map-reading should be a basic life-skill. It is a feeling which arose during the early decades of the 20th century  as maps became important tools in education and way-finding, as peoples’ horizons widened to beyond their immediate vicinities, and as mobility, tourism and general ‘open-air culture’ became the norm for much of western society.

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Henry James Deverson and Ronald Lampitt, The Map That Came to Life. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1948. Cup.1245.aa.53.   

One of the most celebrated 20th century children’s map reading guides is showcased in our forthcoming exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. Published in 1948, Ronald Lampitt and James Deverson’s The Map that Came to Life follows the story of John and Joanna who use an Ordnance Survey map to walk to town. As they pass over fields, past houses and along footpaths, their surroundings are compared with map adjacent on the same page. The fields turn into contoured blank spaces, houses become black cubes, footpaths dashed lines. Map literacy is acquired by the reader as they accompany the children on their virtual journey, matching map with reality.

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In The Map that Came to Life the map is portrayed as an objective, precise and above all truthful mirror of nature. And this inherent trustworthiness enabled maps to become important features of the lives of successive generations of people.  Over time maps became able to serve people with growing ease, particularly thanks to automated mapping and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) from the 1990s.

But was this growing ease without cost? The implications of what commentators such as the historian J.B. Harley felt to be a relinquishing of people’s control over maps were voiced even before the end of the century. But the danger that society could forget how to use maps would have been widely viewed as collateral against the massive pace of positive technological change, if it was thought of at all.

Does the mapping impulse lie dormant but still active within society? National Map Reading Week may tell us whether we really want to find out.