Closer Readings Commentary

A Very Brief Introduction to the Modern World through Eighteen Maps

By Julia Nguyen, Senior Program Officer, Division of Education Programs, National Endowment for the Humanities.

Maps help us orient ourselves in a landscape and interpret the world around us. At a time when many of us frequently access digital maps on phones or in cars, there is still value in deep reading of historical maps first produced on paper.

The Newberry Library has developed a website for teachers, Historic Maps in K-12 Classrooms, that will help you and your students explore maps as representations of how people in different times and places have made sense of their surroundings, visualized relationships with their neighbors, and expressed values and beliefs.

The site features high-quality images of a wide array maps from the Newberry’s acclaimed Hermon Dunlap Smith Center to the History of Cartography, along with lesson plans for elementary, middle, and high school classrooms; curator notes; and other resources. Eighteen maps spanning a timeframe from 1482 to 1979 are organized around six main themes: discovery and encounter, migration and settlement, environmental history, the historical geography of transportation, political and military history, and the geography of American communities.

Features include a series of maps that display the evolution of transportation networks in the U.S. from early nineteenth-century turnpikes, canals, and railroads to “auto trails” of the 1920s, as well as maps demonstrating migration in North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Related EDSITEment lessons and Vetted Websites