'Map' Is An Exquisite Record Of The Miles — And The Millennia

Dec 14, 2015
Originally published on December 15, 2015 4:08 pm

The other day, a beautiful brick landed on my desk — a thick, fat, illustrated book, called Map: Exploring the World.

I used GPS and went about a mile from our studios, to meet one of the men behind this work, John Hessler, in his native habitat: Deep underground, in the Library of Congress's Madison Building. It's the largest map collection in the world — five and a half million maps live here, and Hessler is one of the mapkeepers. He wrote the guide to this new book, which covers 3500 years of maps.

The vault we're standing in is a city block long, entirely filled with drawers, shelves, and globes. "Anything cartographic resides in this room," Hessler says. Ironically, it looks like it would be easy to get lost here — but, Hessler jokes, "we could give you a map to find your way out."

Hessler pulls out some ancient, beautiful maps from the collection at the Library of Congress; documents that show how people related the world over centuries and across continents, beginning with a 500-year-old map from what is now Mexico.

"This is known as the Oztotipac lands map. This was drawn by Aztec scribes in 1539, so this is a real indigenous American map," Hessler says. The Oztotipac lands map is in four parts, three of which look like a modern residential plan, with little tick marks along the side to show the dimensions of the property. "We see the earliest cartography that we have really goes down into land ownership ideas," he adds.

Hessler pulls out a medieval sailing chart, beautifully ornamented with camels and birds, dragons and elephants. "Those are the elements that really let us inside the mapmaker's mind — the thing that separates all the different mapmakers apart is really their style," he says. "And what they decide to leave out, because that's just as important on a map."

Next, he unfurls an 18th-century scroll showing China's Yellow River. "What this map is showing is tea shops," he says. It's a very different style of cartography from the other maps we've looked at, he adds. "A scroll obviously doesn't have the ability to lay itself out or orient itself in these large forms, and so it tends to be striplike, and they tend to be over long distances."

Each of the maps represents an editorial decision — what to leave out, as Hessler mentioned. The idea that we, looking at the map, are interested in one specific thing, and not another. "One of the main powers of cartography is that whole point," Hessler says. "What is the information that's relevant to what I want to say? And how we exist in space?"

But as beautiful as these maps are, no one will ever again use them to get from point A to point B. So what's the point of the collection? "Most maps aren't to get from point A to point B," Hessler says. "Most maps are about how we as a civilization, as different cultures, perceive our lives in this box that we live in. All human activity takes place in space, and cartography is the thing that lets us keep track of that space."

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Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One day not long ago, a beautiful brick landed on my desk, a thick, fat illustrated book called "Map: Exploring The World." I used GPS and went about a mile from our studios to meet one of the men behind this work. I found John Hessler in his native habitat.

JOHN HESSLER: Right now, you're standing deep underground in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress in the middle of the stacks of the geography and map division, the largest map collection in the world.

SHAPIRO: Five-and-a-half million maps live here. John Hessler is one of the map keepers. He wrote the introduction to this new book which covers 3,500 years of maps. The vault we're standing in is a city block long, entirely filled with drawers, shelves and globes.

HESSLER: Anything cartographic resides in this room.

SHAPIRO: And yet, ironically, this looks like a room that it would be easy to get lost in.

HESSLER: It would certainly be easy to get lost here. There's no question about it. But we could give you a map to find your way out.

SHAPIRO: Hessler writes, in the introduction to his new book, a map is still something that is best understood when seen as an image. But this is radio, so we're going to try to bring those images to life for you with words. Hessler pulled out some ancient beautiful maps from the collection at the Library of Congress, documents that show how people related to the world over centuries, across continents, beginning with a 500-year-old map from what is now Mexico.

HESSLER: This is known as the Oztotipac lands map. This was drawn by Aztec scribes in 1539, so this is a real indigenous American map.

SHAPIRO: Describe what it looks like.

HESSLER: Well, it really has four parts to it. And to a certain extent, three of those parts look like any plan of a suburban residential lot. And you see around the perimeter of the lines - you see little tick marks. And those little tick marks are actually the measurements of the pieces of property.

SHAPIRO: One of the things that I find so incredible about this map is how much it looks like a map of the present day, that 500 years ago, they were laying out a residential plan in very much the same way that 21st-century Americans would lay out a residential plan today.

HESSLER: That's true. And we see earliest cartography that we have really goes down into land ownership ideas.

SHAPIRO: What else would you like to show us?

HESSLER: Well, what we have here is - we actually have a medieval portolan chart.

SHAPIRO: What is a portolan chart?

HESSLER: Portolan chart is a sailing chart. These are very popular in the Middle Ages all the way to the middle of the 16th century, when they kind of fell out of favor.

SHAPIRO: There's so much about this map that is not just functional but beautiful. There are decorative camels and birds, dragons and elephants. A map, even hundreds of years ago, was more than just a way of finding your way around.

HESSLER: Well, those are the elements that really let us inside the mapmaker's mind. The thing that separates all the different mapmakers apart is really their style and what they decide to leave out 'cause that's just as important on a map. If we were to put every piece of land mass and every name, it would be so busy that we could never tell anything.

SHAPIRO: Show us this scroll you've pulled out.

HESSLER: This scroll is from the 18th century. This is actually a section of the Yellow River.

SHAPIRO: We're in China now.

HESSLER: We're in China now. What this map is showing is tea shops.

SHAPIRO: This partially unrolled scroll is sort of ochre-colored, and snaking through the center of it is this pink line, which is the Yellow River, surrounded by little blue threads of waterways and green mountains and Chinese calligraphy marking where you can find various things along the route.

HESSLER: What we see here is a very different form of cartography than we've just been looking. A scroll, obviously, doesn't have the ability to lay itself out or orient itself in these large forms, and so it tends to be strip-like, and they tend to be over long distances.

SHAPIRO: And what does this map tell you about the 18th-century Chinese view of the world, as distinct from the other maps that we've looked at?

HESSLER: Well, you can see that the two big things here - there's very little inlet mapping whatsoever. The watercourses and the roads are the most important thing. But also, it shows all of the mountain ranges, all of the mountain ranges in that beautiful green. And again, it just shows us a different way of perceiving the space that we move in.

SHAPIRO: You mentioned earlier that designing a map is deciding what to leave out. As we look at these maps, it is really clear that each one has made a very specific editorial or graphic decision, that what we are interested in is this and not that. There's so much else that could be included but isn't.

HESSLER: One of the main powers of cartography is that whole point. What is the information that's relevant to what I want to say? And how we exist in space?

SHAPIRO: You have helped create a book that is full of maps that no one will ever use, looking at this book, to get from point A to point B. What's the point of such a collection?

HESSLER: Well, most maps aren't to get from point A to point B. Most maps are about how we as a civilization, as different cultures, perceive our lives in this box that we live in. All human activity takes place in space. And cartography is the thing that lets us keep track of that space.

SHAPIRO: John Hessler, it's been such a pleasure talking with you. Thank you.

HESSLER: Thanks very much, it's been - pleasure's been all mine.

SHAPIRO: John Hessler, speaking with us at the Library of Congress map vault. He was consultant for the book "Map: Exploring The World." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.