Reviewed February 2021
Kathy Edwards, Research & Collection Development Librarian
Gunnin Architecture Library, Clemson University
“How, where, and why do cities develop?” is the threshold question posed by Mapping a World of Cities, a freely-accessible, interactive, timeline-based online exhibit of eighty-six maps documenting four centuries of city building across six continents. The project is a digital collaboration among ten United States map libraries and collections that, collectively, represent over seven million cartographic artifacts. So—what makes this comparatively tiny subset of curator-selected maps uniquely representative of the historical arc of urbanism and cartography?
In fact, the project creators’ mission is to provide a threshold into deeper explorations, to stimulate thinking about city building, urban history, and modes of city development across time and space through the peculiar lens of the evolving art and science of cartography. Maps, after all, are intentional creations, shaping perceptions, editing and narrating the urban landscape as much as documenting it.
The variety of cartographic approaches and subject matter on offer in this exhibit is impressive for so selective a collection. The timeline-driven interface stretches from Tenochtitlán on the brink of Spanish conquest to a sociologist’s mapping of gang territories in 1920s Chicago. In between are picturesque bird’s eye views with architectural borders; mariner’s maps communicating industrial and commercial aspects of port cities; topographic and military defense maps; cadastral (real estate) maps promoting speculation and town building; maps serving up civic boosterism and propaganda; maps as instruments of control, asserting colonial sovereignty or projecting imminent civic improvements; ‘history maps’ capturing city form at the moment of some great event (e.g., London in 1666); chorographic maps depicting cities in regional context; and the occasional cartographer making a living through subscription.
The exhibit offers genuine treasures and a number of significant cartographic ‘firsts.’ A 16th-century story map of Jerusalem depicts events in the life of Jesus. A five-map set from the David Rumsey Map Center chronicles the development of New York City from a small town cluster on the tip of Manhattan Island in 1782 to a five-borough region by 1897. Several maps have borders depicting specific buildings and elements of infrastructure in enough detail to be useful to preservationists. An ethnic map of Kolkata in 1914 and a regional transportation infrastructure map of the city the same year leaves speculation on the dynamics of ‘enclaves’ to the viewer.
The site’s interactivity is driven by open-source and Creative Commons-licensed software: TimelineJS from Northwestern University’s Knight Lab and the OpenLayers API. Sorting options are by collection, by region, or both, but not by city. The level of zoom enabled for each individual map on the scrolling timeline provides satisfying detail; the forty maps from the MacLean, Leventhal, and John Carter Brown collections offer particularly high resolution. Clicking through to the sponsoring institution’s discovery platform provides additional item metadata and, in some cases, ‘more like this.’ As a bonus, several institutions offer downloadable files of map images in a variety of resolutions.
Accompanying item descriptions provide context and invite further engagement, describing what’s missing from a map as often as what the cartographer recorded. The exhibit’s makers are apologetically upfront about the biases their selections reveal: fully half the maps are of North American cities (eleven of New York City alone), another seventeen depict cities in Europe or Australia, and all the cartographers are male.
Apart from minor housekeeping issues (occasional broken image icons in the scrolling timeline, text errors a quick proofreading could fix), Mapping A World of Cities is exemplary of what’s achievable, even during a pandemic, when like-minded curators employing out-of-the-box, open-source software collaborate to build intellectually stimulating exhibits showcasing their collections’ best treasures. A highly expandable format, too—if the contributors are willing.