Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

What’s In A Name? Maps as Sources of Controversy

Nearly every archives, academic special collections, and library holds cartographic collections. Most of the custodians of maps rarely think of such collections as being inherently controversial, but Mark Monmonier’s latest entry in his engaging series of studies on the history of maps will make them think somewhat differently. Monmonier has already written books on controversies about the use of the Mercator projection, the use of maps in spying, map distortions, meteorological maps, the political use and misuse of maps, maps in journalism, the use of maps in humanities and social science research, and the mapping of hazards, all with an intent of being readings that a broader public might do. As he states on his website, “Fascinated by innovative mapmaking technologies and the growing diversity of map uses, I write books that explore the impact of cartography on society. Unlike most map historians, I focus on the twentieth century, a period rich in intriguing stories of misguided propaganda and technological trauma but poor in the rare and often expensive collectables that drive most cartographic scholarship for earlier periods. Convinced that what mapmakers do or don’t do affects us all, I enjoy the challenge of providing accessible insights for the general reader” (see his website at

Monmonier, Distinguished Professor of Geography at Syracuse University, has a new book on naming controversies in maps – From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow: How Maps Name, Claim, and Inflame (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), ISBN 0-226-53465-0. The author describes the book as a “tale of power and compromise arising from the mapmaker’s pursuit of an orderly process for naming and renaming that avoids confusion, preserves history, and serves diverse political aims” (p. ix). The book reminds us that “decisions about geographic names reach more of us through maps than any other form of communication” (p. xiii). This is a book, then, about toponymy. Again, Monmonier describes the book on his web site in the following candid way: “Brassiere Hills, Alaska. Mollys Nipple, Utah. Outhouse Draw, Nevada. In the early twentieth century, it was common for towns and geographical features to have salacious, bawdy, and even derogatory names. In the age before political correctness, mapmakers readily accepted any local preference for place names, prizing accurate representation over standards of decorum. Thus, summits such as Squaw Tit—which towered above valleys in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California—found their way into the cartographic annals. Later, when sanctions prohibited local use of racially, ethnically, and scatalogically offensive toponyms, town names like Jap Valley, California, were erased from the national and cultural map forever.”

Monmonier considers erasures, renaming, the processes of placing names on maps, and the regulatory role of government in naming on maps, among other subjects, in a book that is both engaging and filled with humor. Some of his comments provide insights about the potential roles of map custodians as well as those who compile maps. He describes that the mapmaker’s responsibility is to record names, not censor them, noting that the fault for censorship and controversy often develops because of “local people who coined or perpetuated what the topographer merely recorded. Even so, by uncritically encapsulating local usage in a public document, mapmakers and the federal officials who oversaw their work made their successors responsible for defending or cleansing a cultural landscape tainted with ethnic and racial bias” (p. 12). One only wonders when some controversy about old maps, with unpleasant names, might roil the normally quiet day of an archivist, librarian, or curator. The odds seem good that this will occur, when we consider how the role of these custodians is to preserve the older maps, no matter how unpleasant they may be. Monmonier hints at this when he writes, “Like other aspects of cultural preservation, archiving obsolete toponyms in an electronic repository has advantages and disadvantages” (pp. 34-35). Providing such an electronic archive might assist historians and other researchers, but this process also builds a foundation for later controversy. And reading this, and Monmonier’s numerous other works on maps, may help archivists and others to be a little better prepared for the problems they may someday face; in the meantime, this and his other books will help them to understand better maps, their nature, and their importance in society.