They're all over the map

Clubs spring up and collectors unite over items that are a destination in themselves

Looking for a good map? If it's the road variety you're after, talk to Curtis Carroll. His personal collection of 40,000 road maps is packed into filing cabinets and boxes scattered throughout his Sacramento, Calif., home.

If your goal is more whimsical, Jim Willinger's Phoenix store can provide a projection of the world after an alien invasion. You could even join people like map historian Denis Wood, who charts such things as sewers and the placement of Halloween pumpkins in his town.

This is the Age of Maps. Forget for a moment those 15th-century creations, with their romanticized sea monsters and crudely conceived land masses. More than 99 percent of all maps – ever – were made in the past century. Keep a sharp eye, and maps will start popping up on such things as cereal boxes, bus stops, emergency exits, and license plates.

Most of us think about maps only when we need to get from one place to another. But there's a whole breed for whom the map itself is the destination.

And they're multiplying: More than a dozen map societies – with an average membership of 200 – have formed in the United States since the first one was founded in Chicago in 1976.

Factoring into the map mania is a broadening political and cultural interest in other countries – and the fact that a growing number of Americans have traveled abroad. The unprecedented exposure of the Internet also enables instant access to the spectrum of maps, and connects map fans through special listservs.

Popular culture is also spurring a wider awareness of maps. A recent episode of "The West Wing" focused on a debate about varying map projections. Companies like National Geographic have been racing to produce the latest in high-tech map must-haves.

For many enthusiasts, their interest boils down to a simple factor: the joy of unfurling a map and dreaming of future trips or made-up worlds.

Welcome to the map bazaar

The various map societies converge every few months for discussions on map exhibits or to hear a lecturer. Or, in the case of a recent event with the Boston Map Society, they gather for a "Map Bazaar."

The meeting on a frigid Tuesday evening was held on the Cambridge, Mass., campus of Harvard University. Tucked underground beyond winding hallways is the Harvard Map Collection, where 30 map-society members swarm like bees around four tables that are dripping with yellow-edged maps.

"Look at that ornate calligraphy, the detail on those compass roses – and those ships at battle," says Ralph Salomon, an Africa enthusiast who's dressed for a safari and stands in utter awe of a rare 16th-century map of the continent that a fellow member brought in to share.

Two hours go by, and the scene barely changes. Jonathon Rosenwasser argues with a stern-faced man in rainbow suspenders about who might have drawn or commissioned his 17th-century map of the Eastern Hemisphere, and why.

"My friends can only take about five minutes of my talking about maps," says Mr. Rosenwasser, who prefers discussions on the ancient celestial variety. "But here, we can go on for hours."

The reasons people collect maps are sometimes elusive. "It's like people who collect Pez dispensers, it's just one of those things you can't explain," says Mr. Carroll, the guy with a houseful of road maps.

But they can usually tell you how they struck up an interest.

For Carroll, his map-reading talents as a youth often landed him the shotgun seat on family car trips. That spawned his fascination with road maps – the kind that gas stations handed out for free until the 1970s. His hobby is shared by the more than 500 members of the Road Map Collectors Association. The group formed a few years ago, and meets annually in Chicago to give collectors a chance to learn more about the hobby or to swap maps. Carroll rarely misses a year.

"There's always that one map that a map collector is looking for," he says.

Meanwhile, Mr. Willinger, president of the Wide World of Maps company in Phoenix, Ariz., got into the business because he was amazed by the sheer variety of maps out there. His business carries 30,000 kinds: natural-history maps of the ocean floor; images of what the earth would look like if the polar ice caps melted; navigational maps for hiking, kayaking, flying, off-roading, and just plain driving. It also sells map-decorated items such as hats and beach balls.

"You get to learn so much about the world, how could maps not be interesting?" he says.

That resonates with John Hebert, chief of the map division at the Library of Congress, though he's more intrigued by the idea of maps as historical missives from a particular place and time.

"I realized that a single map can reveal so much more information than a photograph or a written description," he says.

Europeans in the 16th century, for example, might have illustrated a map of Brazil depicting the natives as cannibals, added sea monsters to warn of possible danger, or enlarged the region's borders to give an illusion of greater importance. The possible influences are endless among the library's 4.7 million maps, which span 5,000 years and constitute the largest map collection in the world.

Maps do more than come in handy

Never before have maps had so much utility. Take the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, for example. When the Arab television news network Al Jazeera aired a tape of Osama bin Laden making his first post-Sept. 11 statement, the best anyone could say of his location was that it was somewhere in Afghanistan.

But University of Nebraska Prof. John Shroder, having spent two decades mapping Afghanistan with painstaking detail, recognized the ravine on the video to be in a southern province.

He became an instant celebrity; his trove of maps is now secured with digital locks and 24-hour surveillance.

Meanwhile, architect Laura Kurgan designed the map "Around Ground Zero" to help visitors explore a zone that defies easy access. She gave away 20,000 copies in January to show unobstructed sightlines, impromptu memorials, and a suggested walking path around the site.

The New York fire department is using satellite technology to map the precise locations of human remains and personal possessions at the World Trade Center, in the hope that engineers will better understand the way the towers collapsed. Sales of Afghanistan maps have spiked since the attacks, giving people a better sense of the oft-overlooked region.

Maps aren't always benign in their portrayal of the world, however. A long-standing debate over two types of world map was highlighted in "The West Wing" last year. The Mercator Projection Map, a classroom staple for decades, has been criticized for being Eurocentric – exaggerating the size of Europe while diminishing the size of third-world countries. Fictional White House press secretary C.J. Cregg was intrigued when she learned about the less-used Peters Projection Map and realized that her view of the world wasn't the only one.

The Peters map, developed in 1974, shows the correct sizes of countries, although their shapes resemble "wet laundry hung out to dry," as a famous cartographer once put it. After the show, sales of Peters maps reportedly rose.

"Every mapmaker has an agenda," says Dr. Wood, author of several books about the psychology of maps, including his latest, "Seeing Through Maps." "Even in something as innocent as a road map, the political interests of the mapmaker as well as the interests of those who commissioned the map can bleed through."

Wood has also used maps as if they were novels, describing everyday life. He mapped his neighborhood of Boylan Heights in Raleigh, N.C., in terms of Halloween pumpkins, sidewalk graffiti, and fences made from chain link to wrought iron to picket, each denoting a different level of wealth and style. "These maps are transformers that show individuals as citizens of a community, and all its unique characteristics," he says.

We can all be mapmakers

With the preponderance of maps and their uses, map sellers are hoping to cash in on new markets. Already, a boom in digital maps over the past five years has democratized the world of cartography. More people are able to make their own maps, if they know how to use the technology.

"In the future, we'll only continue to blur that line between mapmaker and map user," says William Stoehr, president of National Geographic Maps.

For example, people are just beginning to download digital maps, add their own information, and then either print them out or download them to a Palm Pilot.

The company also has about 100 kiosks in outdoor-sporting-goods stores that will print out up-to-date hiking maps – including information about washed-out bridges or bear sightings.

That same concept is behind the Digital Earth Project, a widespread effort to find an easy way for people to quickly get information from servers worldwide and blend it with other data on a desktop, regardless of incompatibilities in data sets.

Currently, merging data sets requires custom programming or use of costly geographic-information-system (GIS) software. Digital Earth, spearheaded by NASA in 1998, would allow a computermaker to chart spare-parts inventories in worldwide warehouses, or give officials the chance to map a hurricane and quickly plan for mass evacuations.

No one knows when it will be ready for everyday use, but Mr. Stoehr is willing to predict that "map technology like Digital Earth will have a real revolutionizing effect on the world."

He's quick to add that it's no substitute for certain enthusiasts whose priority is maps made of mere paper – yet full of tactile and historical splendor.

"What's most interesting, though," he says, "is that whenever I tell people where I work, no matter what their background may be, they often exclaim: 'I love maps!'"

• E-mail sara@csmonitor.com

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