Maps and Family History (book review)

One of my favorite blogs, The Map Room, reviews Walking With Your Ancestors: A Genealogist’s Guide To Using Maps And Geography. Jonathan Crowe, The Map Room’s author, notes the book’s “assertion that place is central to genealogical research”– you gotta know where to look to find the good stuff, and maps are a genealogist’s friend.

What intrigues me about maps and family history is a slightly different use for them—a memory trigger. The common wisdom for conducting your oral history includes the helpful suggestion, “Use photographs and documents to help trigger the narrator’s memory to describe past events or locations.” Photos are, of course, so freakin’ obvious… First as an identification of who’s in the picture—and how they’re related, and where the picture was taken. And second, as a trigger to the significance of the persons, place, and that time. “Here’s Old Uncle Jake who used to visit us every few years. Let me tell you what he used to say when he’d come to visit us…” or somesuch. But the “and documents” part of the statement seems a little vague. What documents? Old family records? Letters? Memorabilia? Sure, all that and more. Thanks to Jonathan Crowe, let us add maps to the “and documents” list.

A map from 50 or 75 years ago (probably) looks much different than today (I’m from Southern California, where development makes ever-changing maps a constant. Depending on your location, your mileage [!!] may vary.) Older street layouts may call to mind places that no longer exist, and events that took place at those places. Or the ability to trace a route may elicit the day-to-day details of life when a person had to get from home (right here) to school (over here) and then afterwards, working at the store for a few hours (over here). Once the locations have been identified, it’s a small step to elicit more detailed recollections—people or places or events along those routes. Maps may help to describe a “typical day”—teasing out the elusive details that later generations hunger to understand, details that answer the question, “What was it like, Grandma?”

Or maybe it’s just me…. I come from a fairly map-obsessed family. I mean, my Mom goes to the local Auto Club and gets some helpful maps (say, of the region where my brother moved to not too long ago) to hand out as stocking stuffers at Christmas. And “Oh!” she says, “I got you all the San Bernardino County map because Triple-A stopped making a map that covers the whole region!”

In all the road trips we took when I was young, the privilege of riding in the front seat was accompanied by the responsiblity to read the map. I barely recall the first time that I looked down at the squiggles and saw that the curved line with the name Something Something Road was the place where we needed to turn right, up ahead (and how I felt a small thrill of mastery now that I could do it, too).

Then there’s the college boyfriend who visited after returning from a week-long humanitarian trip in Mexico. He named places there, and my Mom exclaimed, “Oh! let me get a map!” so she could look at it and see where his named places were in relation to the places we had been to in Baja California. My face wrinkles with disgust at the way he later laughed at my Mom, “I can’t believe it!” he said, then mocked her, “‘Let’s look at a map!’”

Map as litmus test for boyfriends. Of that one (what was I thinking?!), the less said, the better.

Funny, when I met Doc M (my significant other) he was working on a project run by NASA and NIMA to create a topographic map of nearly the entire planet using special radar equipment aboard the Space Shuttle. (How cool is that?!)

And then again, there was the time I lived in Taiwan for 3 months; the family I lived with was surprised that I could use a map to make my way around town (shapes of streets, I can see that. And compare this Chinese symbol with the symbol on the sign). Same thing holds for leading a small group through the streets of Athens (yay for studying Biblical Greek. At least I can recognize the letters on the signs!) Or the time that….

Okay, okay, it’s obvious that in my case, maps elicit stories. Lots of stories. Maybe they will for you, too.

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Posted by Susan A. Kitchens on May 11, 2006 in • BooksInterviewing
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