Digital Mapping: Format vs. Function

Maps used in the digital humanities are a unique tool in that they are not used for the original purpose of maps, (i.e. physical navigation), but in order to add a layer of visual interpretation to a set of data. Oftentimes maps are used in the digital humanities because of the format the medium provides rather than the function. Therefore, because maps are not used as maps, developers need to rethink the way they are presented, and users need to rethink the way they approach maps utilized in digital public humanities projects.



Don’t get me wrong, I use GoogleMaps and Waze to find my way around, but those maps are being specifically designed and utilized for their functionality. Digital maps like “Digital Harlem” are not largely used, or were created to be used, as a physical navigation tool. Though some users may go to the physical spaces, the project was designed so that people who are geographically isolated from the area can explore and develop an understanding of the space through a digital medium.

Even if they did visit current Harlem, they would be looking at a very different space than that represented by the “Digital Harlem” landscape. As Stephen Robertson points out in his essay “Putting Black Harlem on the Map,” geospatial web tools are meant to provide more than just geographic location, “Geospatial tools involve not only maps but also databases. The power of such tools is that they use geographic location to integrate material from a wide range of disparate sources. ‘What is important about assigning a geographic reference to data,” Karen Kemp points out, “is that it then becomes possible to compare that characteristic, event, phenomenon, etc. with others that exist or have existed in the same geographic space. What were previously unrelated facts become integrated and correlated.’”


Geospatial tools and digital mapping are relatively recent, but the idea that maps utilized within the humanities need to be approached as more than just navigation tools has also resonated and existed through other humanities fields. Franco Moretti discusses the use of maps in 19th century British literature and their interpretive meanings, “And with a little luck, these maps become more than the sum of their parts: they will possess ‘emerging’ qualities, which were not visible at the lower end,” (Moretti, 53).


Moretti argues that the maps that are presented are meant as tools to interpret relationships between locations rather than navigation. I believe the same theory can be applied to digital maps that are created for purposes of interpretation.


Geospatial Layers

He points out, “The diagrams look like maps, yes, because they have been ‘superimposed on a cartographic plan’ but their true nature emerges unmistakably from the way I analyse them, which disregards the specificity of the various locations, to focus almost entirely on their mutual relations; which is indeed the way to read diagrams, but certainly not maps,” (Moretti, 54) “Digital Harlem,” is exploring maps in the same way, as a format rather than function.


In moving forward, digital humanists may have to rethink spatial relationships as represented on maps. To truly take advantage of digital maps, is it possible to reproduce it in its original format as a navigational tool? How will digital maps develop to be fully realized as interpretations of digital information? As users, what are strategies to approach digital maps to get the most information from them, or at least the information that the website developers intended us to see? There seems to be a lot of underlying potential within digital mapping, it will be interesting to see how the future unfolds.



Stephen Robertson, “Putting Harlem on the Map,” Writing History in the Digital Age.–writing-history-in-the-digital-age?g=dculture;rgn=div1;view=fulltext;xc=1#8.2

Franco Moretti, “Maps,” Graphs Maps and Trees (e resource)

This entry was posted in Blog. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Digital Mapping: Format vs. Function

  1. trapanesed says:

    Thank you for your contribution. You mentioned that maps can be used in order to show relationship between locations, not simply navigation. This broadened my definition of a map.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s