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History Guide

Regional Maps

What are Maps?

Mapping encompasses methods for representing geospatial information in paper and digital forms and using other technologies such as remote sensing and geographic information systems (GIS). Maps are needed in areas ranging from civil engineering and regional planning to navigation, and geospatial data is increasingly valuable to analysis in business, government, and beyond. Computer technologies and the internet have brought profound changes to how maps are created and used, and a growing number of mapping applications have been developed for portable devices such as car navigation systems and smartphones.

Maps assume many forms, including spherical globes, folded paper charts, wall-sized murals, and images on tiny electronic screens. As symbolic representations at varying scales, maps show a selection of information, including some components of space. The most well-known map form is a geographic two-dimensional depiction of a three-dimensional area for means of orientation, as in the standard road map. However, maps may also be three-dimensional, interactive, or present much more abstract spaces or concepts. In addition to describing features on the Earth's surface, maps can represent underwater areas, the interiors of caves, celestial bodies such as planets, the structure of DNA, or the relationships between the characters in a work of fiction, among many other examples. The term "cartography" refers to creating maps and related geographic products. According to the International Cartographic Association, cartography is the art, science, and technology of making maps.

Maps can be divided into two general categories: general-purpose and thematic maps. General-purpose maps show various information, commonly including lakes, rivers, roads, cities, and administrative or political boundaries. Most general-purpose maps, such as road and topographic maps, are designed to serve as reference tools. In contrast, thematic maps show patterns and distributions corresponding to a single topic or theme, such as rainfall or corn production.

For more than four thousand years, maps have been used to record and communicate information about the Earth. The ancient Greeks created maps to characterize the Earth's spherical shape, while legions of Roman soldiers used them as tools in the conquest of new territories. Drawn by hand, early maps showed landscape features using pictorial symbols to represent mountains, rivers, and other physical features. Later technologies, such as printing, eliminated the need for maps to be painstakingly copied and increased the speed at which maps could be reproduced and disseminated. Exploration, especially during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, created a demand for maps to assist in ocean navigation and to document newly discovered locations.

Modern maps play many societal roles, from guiding aircraft to providing reference information within school textbooks. Under most circumstances, maps are superior to charts and graphs in their ability to represent distances, directions, and the relative sizes of objects over space. In addition to showing the features' locations, maps can efficiently describe geographic patterns and the spatial extent of physical entities such as rivers and mountains. They also offer cultural elements such as property boundaries and political or administrative areas. As archives of spatial information, maps are used extensively for recording the locations of historical events and spatially referenced scientific data. In addition to their use in storing information, maps serve as essential research tools for visualizing geographic data for evaluating hypotheses about spatial distributions. The development of computer technology allowed GIS and other mapmaking tools to drastically increase the power and potential applications of maps and mapping (Text adapted from EBSCO, 2022).

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