Maps and Map Reading

Cartography, or mapping and mapmaking, is a scientific discipline within geography. It is the process of creating a map by evaluating a physical location to show and analyze the relationship between a location and the human population. Mapmaking utilizes science and artistic techniques to represent space.

Maps are depictions of spatial relationships between things within a specific space. There are many different types of maps. Examples include road maps, city maps, political maps, time zone maps, topographic maps, geological maps, and maps that depict weather patterns, like hurricanes, and seismic or volcanic activity. Maps help people understand and navigate the world. Reference maps and physical maps are the most common; however, there are also thematic maps.

Mapmaking has existed since ancient times when humans began to wander and describe their spatial surroundings. At that time, maps were drawings on cave walls and paper. As humans developed more sophisticated technology, maps expanded to print form and eventually digital. Google Maps takes maps and map reading to another level by not only showing conventional maps but also aerial and satellite views of a location, and more detailed photographic representations of places. Online, users can evaluate places all over the world as modern tools allow people to type in and see data for global locations.

Mapmakers use common features to make map reading intuitive. Symbols, scale, and grids are often standard on maps to make them legible to readers. Standard symbols are used to show physical elements on a map. For instance, blue is often used to show water. Stars on geographic or road maps indicate capital cities. Curved lines on topographic maps show elevation and the presence of hills, valleys, and mountain ranges. The symbols are listed in a key, or legend, that lists the symbols used to represent elements on the map as well as an explanation of the scale.

Scale is used to show how elements on a map relate spatially to each other and in the real world. Often the scale is represented by a bar graph that indicates the specific length on a ruler that is representative of a specific distance on Earth. The scale can also be shown as a fraction or as verbal instruction. So, for example, 1/10 on a map means that a distance in the physical world is 10 times the represented fraction on the map. A verbal scale is a sentence or two that describes what scale is being used. Maps are often referred to as large-scale or small-scale maps, indicating the level of detail of the map. A large-scale map shows a smaller area with more detail than a small-scale map that shows a larger area but with less detail.

Grids are also used on maps to show more precise locations. Longitude and latitude are commonly used with a grid to mark points on a map. However, grids can also be used on more detailed or specific maps of a park or another specific area to show the location of key elements.

Maps are important for a number of industries, including building, land use, and surveying as well as geology, mining, and manufacturing. Data mapping is important in politics, economics, business, and commerce. Maps can help convey important information in fields as varied as environmental justice and epidemiology. Genealogy buffs, railroad enthusiasts, and people interested in the environment and habitats all benefit from cartographic resources. Students will benefit in their studies by using interactive maps for any project requiring the analysis of people, places, and data in the world.

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Maps and Map Reading Resources

Gale resources guide interdisciplinary map resources and cartography collections. Gale's map databasesprimary source archives, and eBooks provide journals, books, archives, literature, and more to library users, K-12 students, and university researchers.


Gale databases include map collections, such as newspapers, journals, and periodical articles as well as primary source documents and multimedia, such as images, audio, and videos that support users interested in maps and map reading.

Primary Source Archives

Gale Primary Sources contains archives and articles that present researchers with firsthand content. Users can access historical documents, archives, and manuscripts to examine topics and create reports. 

Gale eBooks

Gale eBooks offer a variety of books online that support maps and map reading studies. Users can add Gale eBooks to a customized library and cross-search to pinpoint relevant content. Workflow tools help users easily share, save, and download content.

  • Children's Illustrated World Atlas

    Children's Illustrated World Atlas

    DK Publishing  |   2017   |   ISBN-13: 9781465469885

    Using modern mapping based on the latest seamless, cloud-free satellite image data, this atlas takes kids on the ultimate round-the-world trip, from the Americas to Australasia and Oceania. Each detailed map is accompanied by pictures and stories that explore the society, culture, and history of each region, giving young readers an immediate sense of place not conveyed in standard atlases. Bite-size, country-by-country facts and stats are included at the start of each chapter for additional knowledge, and a place-name index identifies 7,500 locations around the world. Kids will even learn about popular discussion topics, such as globalization and the environment in a contemporary introduction section.

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  • Uncovering American History: A Primary Source Investigation of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

    Uncovering American History: A Primary Source Investigation of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

    Rosen Central    |    2019    |    ISBN-13: 9781508184195

    President Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase added about 828,000 square miles of unmapped, unknown land to the young United States. To explore and map this great swath of land, Jefferson sent Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their Corps of Discovery to brave rivers, plains, and mountains. They met American Indians both friendly and hostile, discovered dozens of previously unknown species, and carved for themselves an enduring place in American history. Complete with maps, excerpts from Lewis and Clark's journals, and images of artifacts, this volume tells a timeless tale of adventure, hardship, and triumph.

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