Have you ever anxiously waited for the next 99 B-Line Bus, wondering if you were going to make it on time for your 8am class? Perhaps you opened up your phone to check exactly when the next bus arrived, watching the bus icon slowly inching its way towards your bus stop on Google Maps. Have you ever wondered what technology is behind you making it to your first morning class on time, and what connection this has to the library services offered by UBC? Perhaps not, but here is a blog post explaining that connection and why it matters!
Before sharing some of the mapping resources that UBC Library has to offer, I want to tell you about my learning journey with maps as a geography student here at UBC. The most important thing an instructor told me about maps is that they are never value-neutral (Jerowsky, 2021). They can, like any other image or text, reinforce dominant social, cultural, and political norms. What does this mean in practice? When making maps, one cannot possible include all aspects of the real world – you have to make certain choices about what to include, and, more importantly, what to exclude.
Indeed, European mapmaking was part and parcel of organizing empire and colonialism, erasing pre-existing geographies from the map by falsely depicting the land as tabula rasa (empty land) (Brealey, 2002, p. 10). Knowing this, and having lived in several places in what is now called North America, a tool that has helped me better understood whose land I have been an uninvited guest on is this website. By entering your address on this website, you will be able to see the names of the traditional territories you live and learn on.
If maps are not value-neutral, why and how, you might wonder, can I use them in my daily life as a member of the UBC community? In your academics, maps can be used as primary sources as they tell you something about how a certain author or community understood the environment around them. Following the above example, one tip is to look for what elements of the real world the author chose to exclude from a map, and who was involved and excluded from the map-making process.
Maps can also be powerful storytelling tools. What is so exciting is that you as a UBC community member have all the tools required to make your own maps and tell your own stories. Perhaps you are part of a student or community organization that wants to map either cultural or ecological sites in your local community? One example of a local community using maps in their work is the Hogan’s Alley Society. The alley, which was home to much of Vancouver’s Black community, was displaced for a major freeway construction in the 1960s. Now, the Hogan’s Alley Society works to ensure that the legacy of Strathcona’s Black community is represented as the City of Vancouver redevelops the Hogan’s Alley block (HAS, 2021). To see some of the maps used in their work, check out this short documentary featured on their website.
Another local example of citizens coming together to map their natural environment is EcoWATCH Program of the Pacific Spirit Park Society, where volunteers collect data on invasive species to identify what sites to prioritize for ecological stewardship programs.
Do you now have an idea of something you or your community could benefit from mapping? Or do you simply want to know more about the technology behind the maps that help you get to class on time? A good place to start is by taking an introductory course to Geographic Information Science (GEOS 270) or Cartography at UBC (GEOS 372). In these courses I learnt some of the science behind map-making, and how to use different software to make my own maps and perform spatial analyses. Taking a geography course as an elective is by no means a requirement in order to make maps – you can also start by having a look at UBC Library’s map collection, or access a comprehensive guide to geographic information system (GIS) services and resources offered by the UBC Library. If you have some background knowledge about GIS, you can access free and remote UBC Library labs with all the GIS software you need. In addition, UBC offers discounted GIS software for UBC students, faculty, and staff. And if you have any questions about working with GIS, you can connect with a GIS Graduate Student Peer Expert or a GIS Librarian. If you are looking for some more inspiration, there are a ton of cartography blogs out there that are just a search away!
I hope this blog post made you curious about some of the ways you can use maps in your daily life as a student and community member, and I highly encourage you to make use of some of the resources the UBC Library and beyond have to offer!
Brealey, K. G. (2002). First (National) Space: (Ab)original (re)mappings of British Columbia. [Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia] Retrieved from: https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/ubctheses/831/items/1.0091437
Hogan Alley’s Society. (2021, June 7). What was Hogan’s Alley? https://www.hogansalleysociety.org/about-hogans-alley/
Jerowsky, M. (2021, April 5). Critical cartography: Power, politics, and spatial representation [PowerPoint slides].