Behind the Scenes: How Do You Make a Map?

Acclaimed historian John McNeill and Charlotte Miller, a cartographic specialist, discuss how they collaborated to create over 150 original maps for McNeill’s new world history survey text: The Webs of Humankind: A World History.

John, in your eyes, what makes a good map? What were your goals for the maps in your new textbook?

John McNeill: It’s important to me that maps reflect what’s being discussed in the textbook to help give students a geographical sense of what they’re reading about—it’s pretty difficult otherwise, especially for students new to studying world history who might lack a strong foundation in geographical knowledge.

It’s also important that maps are consistent and easily legible; and that they go beyond political/military information to bring in other important dimensions, for example the environment. It becomes easier to understand why some places were farmed and others not, or why cities sprang up in one place rather than another, if you can see where rivers, deserts, grasslands, and forests were.  Human history is always anchored in environmental realities.

So every map has to balance the goals of providing plenty of information and supporting the text and remaining legible. Charlotte and I discussed every map in detail. We fretted over just where to place the boundary between, say, forested land and farmland in this map from Chapter 4. We wondered if we should include more categories of land use or fewer. After we had agreed on every detail in the maps, I wrote the captions, aiming to steer students through what each map shows and to tie things back to the text. In this map, students see how the rivers of the Indus, Tigris-Euphrates, and Nile valleys provided the geographic basis for growing webs of interaction by 3000 BCE.

How do you make a map? What’s the process?

Charlotte Miller: I start by reading the manuscript and identifying passages that would be well served as a map; often John has good ideas that we then refine further. Once we’ve settled on a map subject, I seek out authoritative source materials that support it, both online and in my library of atlases. Then I draw a sketch with colored pencils for John to look over. Next, I finalize the map manuscript, which is a complete list of the content: color areas, arrows and borders, and all labels. Then we send the map manuscript, a final sketch, and all the supporting materials to a cartographer for rendering. We go through from two to up to seven rounds of proofreading, to ensure that everything is correct, clear, and easily grasped. We ensure labels aren’t too crowded together; that the colors are all distinct; that nothing falls into the “gutter” if the map stretches across two pages; and that our corrections from the previous round were implemented correctly. The process is thorough, even painstaking, but the end result is well worth it.

See the image gallery below for our process for an early map in the book, which shows ecological zones in the African continent. John’s feedback on the preliminary sketch was that the arrows showing the spread of iron working were not adequately supported by current scholarship, so we instead decided to show individual sites, as you can see on the revised sketch. The third image shows the finished product, after the map had been rendered and carefully proofread.

In sum, we use a combination of 11th- and 21st-century technologies: the map starts as a hand-drawn sketch, scanned and sent via the Internet to the cartographer, who renders it using the latest technology.

Can you tell us about a map that was particularly tricky to get right?
Charlotte Miller: A map in Chapter 27, The Cold War World, had to cover the numerous conflicts (Cold War Europe, the Chinese revolution, the Korean and Vietnam wars) discussed in the text. In addition, we wanted to illustrate the statement that the Cold War, fought by the world’s superpowers, disproportionately affected the many Third World countries where these and other conflicts actually occurred. I dug into research papers by John H. Coatsworth and Philipp Bleek, and even a declassified memorandum from Henry Kissinger to President Nixon, to support this. We also had to organize the different categories of information—U.S. involvement in coups, U.S. versus Soviet and Chinese interventions in local conflicts, and possession of the bomb—to make it clear and easily understood. Finally, we managed to do an inset within an inset!

Let’s talk about the series of infographic features in the book, called The Human Web. First off, John, what was the goal of those features?
John McNeill: The idea of webs—sustained exchanges of goods, ideas, pathogens, and so on—is woven into the narrative of my book, but in these infographic features, webs come more clearly to the surface. The features are simplified maps of web connections enhanced with images and quotations. The Indian Ocean World feature, for example, is intended to communicate the links between economic and cultural life along the routes of trade and travel around the Indian Ocean. It does not try to show the actual routes, but schematically shows which places were most connected to which others. It shows how traders and travelers carried religious ideas and practices on their ships and in their saddlebags, bringing Hinduism and Buddhism from India to Southeast Asia, and bringing Islam to both Southeast Asia and the East African coast.

Can you tell us about the Human Web feature on COVID-19?
John McNeill: In 2020 we all got a hard lesson in the interconnectedness of the 21st-century world. The feature on the COVID-19 pandemic shows some of the main routes on which the virus known as SARS-CoV-2 traveled from Wuhan to cities all over the world. The world’s webs by this point left few people and places unconnected. So ideas, fashions, news, and infections circulated more widely than through the circuits of earlier webs, and far faster too.

Charlotte Miller: The heart of this map is the web of interconnections that allowed the virus to spread worldwide so quickly. A New York Times article, “How the Virus Got Out,” had an amazing animation that we drew from as inspiration for the arrows. The rest of the map shows the result of this close interconnection. The numbers of reported cases and deaths are from the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, generally recognized as the most authoritative source. And the source for the governmental responses to the pandemic, in the form of shutdown measures, was the Our World in Data website. We knew that this map would be instantly out of date, but felt it has value as a present-day example of the central thesis of this textbook.

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