Analyzing Historic Maps
Historic maps are an incredible source for examining a wide variety of issues, not limited to place and space. They also have the power to connect students with recognizable places and instill a form of agency in those who might otherwise lack a connection to archival sources. At the same time, making sense of historic maps may prove challenging for students who are unfamiliar with their nuances and cultural references or otherwise find them overstimulating and isolating. Careful source selection goes a long way in mitigating disengagement and piquing interest in this easy-to-follow and highly engaging lesson that tasks students with making large-scale inferences based on study of some of our favorite archival sources.
The goal of this lesson is to teach students how to analyze historic maps and illustrate their usefulness when conducting archival research.
- Distinguish between various types of maps.
- Learn how to identify and read map features.
- Make close observations of historic maps.
- Analyze historic maps to draw inferences about what has changed and/or stayed the same over time.
- Two historic maps showing the same geographic area at different points in time; one for each student or pair of students (see Source One and Source Two included in this lesson as an example; see PDF)
- Copies of any keys or legends associated with the maps; one for each student or pair of students
- Worksheet: Reading Maps (double-sided; see PDF); one for each student
- Writing utensil (one per student)
When choosing maps from your collection, decide whether it is preferable to find an option that relates to the topic students are researching; a location or topic they can personally relate to; or both.
Try to make sure you find maps that have keys, or at least one map that has a key.
Maps can be overstimulating for students who need more support and consequently lead to disengagement. In this instance, select maps that are less busy, simple, and easy to read. We often suggest illustrated maps for students who need more support, and have included an example of an illustrated map as Source Three.
If possible, provide color copies of maps. If you are conducting this activity in an archives or special collections space, show the original version before providing students their own facsimiles to handle. If you are only able to provide black-and-white copies, make sure to select maps that are sharp, possess high contrast, and will be easily readable when copied.
1. Ask students: What physical characteristics or features do maps possess? Some responses may include: water, parks, key/legend, compass, buildings, streets, etc.
2. Invite students to imagine: If they had to draw a map of their favorite place, what would they include on the map?
3. Ask students: Have they used a map, either on their own or with someone else? What did they use the map for? Did they find it difficult or easy to understand the map? Some responses may include: using a map to plan out a route or get to a destination; using a map to navigate public transit; using a map to find one's location; using a map to understand the characteristics of a place.
4. Define maps as a representation of a geographic space, be it what is physically located in an area, statistical representations of an area, or some other correlation. Most maps are flat, on paper or a similar material, but not all maps are flat. Many are both digital and interactive. Explain that archives tend to store historic maps, which admittedly are not as useful for navigating contemporary areas and issues. Invite volunteers to share the reasons historic maps are useful. Responses may include: they help us see things that do not exist anymore or prove the existence of something that did; they help us understand how a place has changed over time; they help us to understand what the world looked like at that time.
5. Distribute the first map.
6. Invite students to look at the source closely and make observations. Remind them that observations are what we see.
7. As students make observations, questions will arise about what various symbols represent. At this point, if you have a key for this map, share the key (or point it out if it is printed on the document students are looking at).
8. Help students understand how to interpret the key, and make sure students can orient themselves to the basic features of the map: for example, make sure they understand where the streets are, which symbols are buildings, etc. If there is no key for this map, invite students to create a list of the symbols that they would include on a key.
9. Distribute the worksheet Reading Maps (provided in Materials above).
10. Use the worksheet to guide students through observations and inferences about the area they are analyzing. Remind them that observations are what we see, and inferences are what we think based on what we see. You could invite students to take part in a full-class discussion about the prompts on the worksheet while writing their own responses, or you could instruct students to work independently on their own responses.
11. Distribute the second set of maps representing the same area at a different time in history.
12. Ask students to turn to page 2 of their worksheet and make observations and reflections about this map, as in Step 5. Again, if you have a key for this source, share the key and ensure that students understand how to use it.
13. Ask students to make inferences based on the differences in observations they made between the two sources: What could they infer has changed? Based on what they see, why would they infer this has happened?
Note: If you only have access to a single map but your students have prior knowledge about the same geographic location at another point in time, you could ask them to make inferences about changes in that location using prior knowledge.
Conclusion for Scenarios One and Two
14. In conclusion, ask students: How are maps useful for archival research? What can they tell us about the topic we are studying? What can they not tell us about the topic we are studying? Invite students to think about what sources they could use, alongside a historic map, to gain a fuller picture of their topic.
Assess whether students are able to use their own words to articulate observations about the maps they analyzed. Assess student ability to use a key while interpreting a historic map. Assess student ability to use their observations from the source to make inferences about how an area changed and/or stayed the same over time.
For students who need more support, spend a greater amount of time discussing how to use a key, and confirm that students understand map features. Students who are less familiar with maps might find it challenging to distinguish streets from blocks and buildings from empty blocks. They may also benefit from reviewing basic vocabulary such as neighborhood, city, street, and block.
Understand that maps can be visually overstimulating for students who need more support. Limit the number of activities you do with maps at one time; consider breaking the lesson apart across numerous sessions, and responding to only one section of the Reading Maps worksheet during each session (leave "Examining a Second Source" for another class period or omit it entirely).
As an option for students who find maps overstimulating, we recommend looking for simpler maps or illustrated maps; these may be easier for students to spend time with. As an example of an illustrated map that we frequently use, see Source Three, A Map of the Olden Town of Brooklyn (J. Young and G. Currie, 1841).
For students who need less guidance, ask for observations that demonstrate a higher level of comprehension and analysis. Prompt students to identify smaller details, to make more complex inferences, and to draw more on their prior knowledge.