You Are Here, Says the Map

September 13, 2023

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There it is, at the street corner in the historic district, the airport terminal, or the outdoor music festival —a beacon to anchor you, to point you to the amenity you seek, be it caffeine, the bathroom, or the way out: the locator map.

I am drawn to any locator map. I must go to it. I must get confirmation that, indeed, I am right there. I must see what this map wants me to know is nearby and check out some locally crafted cartography. Plus, isn’t it nice to see a tangible map out in the world, doing its mappy job? I feel compelled to take a moment and appreciate its presence.

Childhood Locating

My earliest locator map memories are tied to childhood gratification, like the Six Flags amusement park map in St. Louis. I would assess what was available and where, though the uncertainty remained as to whether I could ride anything until standing next to that fate-determining height requirement sign. But there was also the Osage Beach Outlet map for those glorious, occasional trips to “the lake” (Lake of the Ozarks) to wander an entire mini city of stores. It blew my little mind that the shopping center had its own internal roads and stop signs! One of the maps was located near the restrooms, so every trip we could both find relief and regroup to see what commercial marvels remained; that is, once I had secured my new school year sneakers and probably another Big Dogs t-shirt. (My sense of fashion has always been a bit lacking.)

There were no online maps or directories to check out beforehand. It was a boots-on-the-ground approach to discover what lay before you, with the on-site locator maps as precious keys to unlock the adventure. I would beeline it to those maps, as they eased my anxious brain’s concern that I was missing something. They still do that for me.

Critiquing Community Cartography

As an adult and a cartographer, I find myself compulsively critiquing these maps, making it a challenge to spot a mistake, be it a misspelling, misplaced item, or non-intuitive design element. Perhaps it’s a bit of a do-I-still-have-it cartography test for myself, an itch that must be scratched, like the folks who set out to fix grammatical errors on signs in the U.S. and U.K.

I also play the “guess who made this map?” game. Was it a cartographer, a graphic designer, or an ad agency? There are usually clues based on what was included or as certain principles dominate others. I check the organizational author (town planning department, chamber of commerce, community non-profit?) and think about what they intended, how they hoped to convey it, and what those map planning discussions were like. Yeah, I can be a real bore to non-cartographer friends, so I’ve learned to do this in my head. Of course, sometimes, the game is over immediately when a lone, oversized, commercially-branded symbol sticks out among the rest. Okay, I see you corporate sponsorship, fair enough.

You Are…Where?

Have you ever noticed a “You Are Here” point that is worn, faded, or entirely gone, while the rest of the map remains in better shape? When I see such weathered points, I think of the history of interactions on that very spot — the number of people who touched their finger to the map, tethering themselves in place, believing that somehow, by physically pinpointing their location while scanning their surroundings, it would speed up the spatial orientation process. But hey, I’ve done it too. Have you? I think of the many crossroads moments (“Should we go here or there?”), the pathfinding moments (“There it is!”), and the settling of directional disputes (“I told you it was THIS way!”) that have all happened right there.

The repetitive “You Are Here” touches aren’t entirely unlike statue rubbings done for good luck. Like the nose on Abraham Lincoln’s bust in Springfield, Illinois, the snout of the Porcellino statue in Florence, Italy, or the head of the Testudo the Terrapin statue on the University of Maryland campus, maybe we touch the “You Are Here” spot for a bit of directional goodwill. Now with statues, the repetition keeps them polished. With maps, it wears the material away. Wait, are you thinking what I’m thinking? You are, right? Locator maps made of bronze with a publicly polished You Are Here point! ….What? That’s out of the budget and highly problematic to keep updated? *sigh* Fine.

What IS here?

Have you ever encountered a locator map that maybe wasn’t needed? As in you can see all the places it depicts from where it stands, or the map is more empty than not, in a way that comes across a bit sad —as if the locals were excited to have a map and stayed committed to that idea even though the result doesn’t match their pride-of-place intentions?

That emptiness is just due to data and design choices. We know there is more. At that location. At every location. As geospatialists, we know the layers. We know of the things beneath and above and the intangible thematic data in between. There is, in fact, so much right here, at this one point, and I’m grateful to be cognizant of that richness of spatial information — a real perk of our profession. So I like to mentally fill in the otherwise lacking map as an acknowledgment to a place’s fullness, not its projected emptiness. Wait, do you all get geospatially philosophical too? Is it just me? Have I made things weird (again)?

Your Locator Map

If you made a locator map, what would it look like? Where would you place it: In a public space in your community? In your neighborhood? Maybe in your home? Where would “You Are Here” be, and what landmarks and amenities would you include? Locally focused maps made during COVID lockdown provide creative examples of the many possibilities. I think I’ll make one myself (and I may or may not have already ordered a You Are Here doormat to tie it all together).

We are here, in the geospatial realm, more aware of ‘here’ than most and, hopefully, not taking it for granted.

But right now all I really want to know is where can I see the fancy chickens at the Montgomery County Fair? …And where can I find the funnel cakes?


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