Between the Lines

Between the Lines

Strange Maps author Frank Jacobs shares his tips on how to be a critical map reader and get more information out of every map you see.


4 - 12


Sociology, Arts and Music, Geography

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They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well then, a map may be worth a million words.

Both maps and photographs try to show us what the world is like. There is a big difference, though. Photographs are copies of the real world. Maps never are.

Every map is shaped by a person's point of view. It shows the ideas and choices of the person who made it. On top of that, every person who looks at a map will see it differently. Our understanding of maps is shaped by our feelings and experiences.

Frank Jacobs is a map expert. He said people have a close relationship with maps. "People see maps in spots of paint on the sidewalk. Or they empty their coffee and in the bottom of the cup, they see Africa. People see the shapes of countries in all kinds of objects," Jacobs said.

Maps Cannot Always Be Trusted

He also said that people usually trust maps. That's partly because maps have been around for a very long time. Jacobs said, humans made maps "even before we invented writing." It's like our "first language."

Maps cannot be trusted completely, though. "A map is always a bit of a lie because there is always something that is not on the map," Jacobs said. For example, most maps show the world as flat. Of course, the world is actually round.

When you look at a map, you're taking in the point of view of the mapmaker, Jacobs said. Every map has been shaped to "tell you a story."

Jacobs pointed to one good example. More than 60 years ago, a map of Europe appeared in Time magazine. At the time, the United States and Russia were enemies. Some Americans were worried that Russia might try to take over Western Europe. Eastern Europe was already on Russia's side. The map made Eastern Europe look bigger than it really is. It made it look like Western Europe was in danger, Jacobs said. The map was a tricky way of telling people what to think.

How To Be a Critical Map Reader

So, how can you spot the little lies in a map?

Jacobs said the main questions to ask are, "Why did someone make this? What's the story and who is telling it?" If you can answer these questions, you won't be easily fooled.

You can also look at the conventions that are used in a map. A convention is a usual way of doing things. When a group of people uses a convention, it means they agree to do things the same way. This is useful, but there could be many other ways of doing the same thing.

Mapmakers often follow conventions. "Conventions were set by someone because they were convenient for that time and place," Jacobs said. For example, "the fact that north is up" is a convention. So is drawing Europe in the middle of a world map, he said. This convention was made by Europeans, and most mapmakers still follow it.

There are other ways of seeing the world, though. Some maps show the world upside-down. Others have Asia in the center. "Take any map that surprises you, that seems somehow 'strange,'" Jacobs said. Then, he added, you can ask certain questions. What is different about it? Can you connect the things that are strange about it to the person that made it? Can you connect them to the reason he or she made it?

All maps tell a story, Jacobs said. If you study them closely enough, you will figure out what that story is, and why it is being told.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Ryan Schleeter
Proof Integrated Communications
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Sean P. O'Connor
Funded by
Lockheed Martin
National Geographic Society
Elaine Larson, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

November 3, 2023

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