Introduction to Digital Humanities

RELI/ENGL 39, Fall 2015, University of the Pacific

Digitial Maps, Helpful or Hurtful?

Our reading this week seems to, at least in a small way, bring us back to our readings and discussions a few weeks ago about whether or not cultural heritage should be digitized or not, and the potential problems with doing so. While that discussion was mainly taking into account the importance of the items and heritage to groups of people, and how it should or should not be shared, the readings by Patricia Seed suggest that digitizing other forms content, specifically maps, can also have significant drawbacks that in some cases outweigh the benefits.

The practice of digitizing maps, according to Seed, has many important benefits for those who want to have access to them without needing the original copy or a large print reproduction. The reality of accessing maps prior digital scans and photographs of the original physical copy did not allow for easy viewing and comparisons to the original maps to be made. Now, rather than taking a large book or a cut out page to a location of an original map to compare the two, everything can be stored on a flash drive that can be plugged into any computer.

civil_war_mapHowever, Seed argues that there are potential serious drawbacks if great care is not taken to preserve the original integrity of the work. In the reading, Seed recalled when she requested to view a scanned copy of an original map at a museum, and noticed that it differed greatly from the copy that was for sale in the gift shop. She explained that the employee at the museum stated that the scanned document was edited to make it more visually appealing for sale. This editing of the map ruined the integrity of the map, as locations were now inaccurate on the edited map, and any scholarly use for the edited piece was no longer possible (Seed).

Unlike the preservation needs for cultural heritage as we previously discussed, digitizing maps presents issues that are not issues of who should be able to access the material, rather the issue is how accurate it the material. The fact that digital reproductions of maps can fall victim to Photoshop editing and the inherent limitations of the scanning process means that the viewer should never take what they see when viewing maps accurate without any doubt. How accurately a digital map is depicting the source material can be very accurate or very inaccurate, and other sources should be considered before making a determination on the accuracy of a particular piece.

Now, to turn your attention to the map posted above, it is clear that this is the type of map that you would have to use other sources to interpret to determine the accuracy of the digital copy. Without viewing the original work, you may say that this map looks accurate, the colors look vibrant and there does not appear to be any distortion on any of the ample lines on the map. However, we have no way of knowing that this reproduction of the original map is completely faithful to the source map. For example, some of the many rivers and borders on the map may have been retouched in editing post scan if there were damaged or faded on the original. If this were the case, depending on how much care was put into retouching the lines, the accuracy of the map may be compromised.

Kyle C.



Image Source:

Seed, Patricia. “A Map is not a Picture: How the digitial World Threatens the Validity or Printed Maps”.


  1. I really like how you compared this week’s reading to the ones we did a few weeks back, about sharing cultural content. It’s really interesting to look at the different issues that come up with these two topics. They’re similar, in a way, but they present varied challenges to the integrity of digitizing culture. And I like how you dissected the reading so thoroughly, too. Your example at the end really drove home the points you made in your blog post. The map you provided looks perfectly fine on the surface, but we don’t know what kinds of changes have been made from the original map that was copied.

  2. I agree with you when you say maps can be incorrectly depicted and shouldn’t be so. As the reading explains, many have edited maps in order to make them more aesthetically pleasing, destroying the integrity of the piece. While some of the problem may extend from inaccurate mapping in the first place, further doctoring only leads to more problems, especially if a person relies on the piece for research. That person may not even know the map is inaccurate and further promulgate an inaccurate guide. It truly would be difficult to tell.

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