“Reading” maps

Went for a nice walk at the weekend from Reading along the Kennet and Avon canal to Aldemaston. Took the two relevant 1:50000 OS Landrangers, depsite the fact that the whole route lies on the towpath, thus making getting lost difficult. A very pleasant stroll apart from an exchange of Anglo-Saxon pleasantries with a careering lycra lout on a tensile graphite framed, Boudica razor tyred, Effoff Mk II Superbike. Despite following such a topographically well-defined route on the OS however, I still noticed a strong, and entirely irrational, impluse is to follow the route on the sheet. I found myself obsessively checking the path at every bridge, lock and level crossing. This is an issue addressed by Mike Parker in his recent book, Map Addict (Harper Collins 2010). This wonderful tome rambles wanders with glorious inconsistency around the obsessions and experiences of Parker, a self-confessed ‘consummate map junkie’; and one stop upon the journey is a discussion of gender-specific mapreading, in the process debunking of the myth that women cannot read maps. The distinction Parker draws is between a ‘male’ impulse to plan routes, measure distances and note waymarkers, versus a ‘female’ impulse to navigate by semantics and points of (personal) significance. This is just one issue in so-called called ‘cognitive spatial literacy’  (see, e.g. this paper) which is likely to become more and more important not just in research as ‘virtual world’ tools become more prevalent, but also in how research is done. It’s critical to note that there are certain assumptions in such ‘datascapes’, and one important way of characterizing these is how we perceive the data we are observing. On the other hand, one can’t tar all spatial digital representations with this brush (a point made very eloquently by Parker in the chapter entitled ‘Pratnav’); they have been there, even in the venerable Ordnance Survey. To give one example, reprising my post from February about battle sites, an article in the current issue of Sheetlines, the journal of the Charles Close Society notes the location in OS of several historic battles, but in doing so draws attention to the fact that these are represented as authoritative points, when actually they probably weren’t. In other words it invites a kind of ‘spatial reading’ that subject might not justify.

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