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Mark Lindberg pointing at a Twin Cities campus map.

University cartographer Mark Lindberg points at a location on the U's Twin Cities Campus Visitors Guide and Map. The first version of this map was developed by graduate students at the U's cartography lab in 1994.

Mapmaking at the U

By Pauline Oo

Published on October 4, 2005

The University of Minnesota's cartography lab in Blegen Hall on the Twin Cities campus is a sardine-packed room. Desks, drafting tables, and filing cabinets line the walls; each is topped with either a computer, waist-length high scrolls of paper, or sheets maps of various types and sizes. The heart of the room holds a scanner capable of handling paper up to 42 feet wide.

"We're a modest operation, but we have a bunch of irons in the fire," says Mark Lindberg, the University cartographer who wears many hats-he runs the lab, directs the U's professional master's degree program in Geographic Information Systems (GIS), teaches GIS graduate courses, and serves as coprincipal investigator on University of Minnesota Population Center grant projects.

The University has had a cartography lab since the early 1960s. The majority of work that lands on Lindberg's desk--that requires his almost 30-year expertise in cartography and the brute of his hardworking, eager-to-learn student workers--speaks volumes about lab's capability and reputation.

Current projects include thematic maps for the Minnesota Historical Society, the University of Minnesota Press, and Minnesota climatologist Mark Seely; and geographic experiments for some local private firms. Past or ongoing projects include a state population distribution map for the Minnesota Department of Administration, the Twin Cities Bicycle and Commuter Guide for the Metropolitan Council, and the Twin Cities Campus Visitors Guide and Map for the Office of University Relations.

TC campus map

Graduate students from the U's geography department developed the U's first Twin Cities Campus Visitors Guide and Map at the cartography lab in 1994. You can pick up a new version of the glossy map at University Relations, 3 Morrill Hall. University departments can order the maps--the first 50 are free; additional maps are 15 cents each--by calling 612-624-6868. Poster versions of the map are also available.

"We have no brochure [touting who we are or what we offer]," says Lindberg. "People hear about our services pretty much by word of mouth."

Cartography is the art and science of making maps. Often considered scientific documents, maps are also aesthetic objects shaped by numerous factors, such as purpose, personal choice, cultural values, political beliefs, and even design and budget constraints. The oldest known maps are carvings on clay tablets from Babylon during 2300 B.C. The first world maps followed voyages in the early 16th century by Columbus and others to the New World.

"When I grew up rarely would the newspaper have a map," says Lindberg. "Then all the sudden newspapers around the country started having daily weather maps, and the same thing occurred in television. [TV stations were sandwiching the weather reports with meteorological maps]. Kids growing up today see many more maps now than kids growing up 50 years ago because of the rise of computers and the ease of making maps."

Map facts

The Library of Congress's Geography and Map Division has the largest and most comprehensive cartographic collection in the world, numbering over 4.6 million maps, including 60,000 atlases, 6,000 reference works, numerous globes and three-dimensional plastic relief models, and a large number of cartographic materials in other formats, including electronic.

Maps have traditionally been made using pen and paper, but now, computers are involved in almost every stage of map production, from data capture to printing. Most commercial quality maps are made with mapmaking software that falls into one of three main types: computer-aided design, geographic information systems, and specialized map illustration software, such as ArcView, and Geocart.

"The first academic article taking about digital cartography was in 1959," says Lindberg. "[The technology experienced] slow momentum through the 60s, and in the 70s, when I was a graduate student, it was a very hot topic. Cartographers tend to be a conservative lot, and lots of [cartography] shops held out and didn't do much in terms of digital production even into the 1990s." When Lindberg arrived at the University of Minnesota in January 1996, the cartography lab "was already involved quite deeply in digital production." In fact, the lab pioneered current mapmaking technology, notes a past map exhibit at the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum five years ago.

So has the advent of digital cartography made maps better?

"No," replies Lindberg, who majored in art and geography at Macalester College and whose first mapmaking job as a Kent State University graduate student involved classified data collection for a missile complex in the Soviet Union. He says fonts are the biggest sore spots in map production today. For example, instead of sticking to just one or two font styles or sizes to make a map easier to read, some map designers are using 10 types of fonts in 10 different sizes to identify street names and tourist attractions on a map. Or they are choosing fonts from a program that may not be compatible with their printer or the computer at a print shop, leading to distorted names or poorly spaced words on the final product.

Mapping today

You can view topographic maps and images--of your house, for instance--if you know which Web sites to visit (Google Earth is a popular site); you can pull up specific store-locator maps; and you can also get precise driving directions, with a road map to boot, when you submit Internet-search queries such as, "how do I get to the Black Hills National Forest?" or "where is Camp Snoopy?"

"My hope is that over time the ease of making maps will make people recognize quality and make them go, 'gee whiz, I want my map to look like this map over here,'" says Lindberg. "That day may come; I don't think we're there yet. We've had a decline in the design of maps over the past 10 years, and it may be another 10 years before we get back to where we were."

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