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UW-Madison researchers pour themselves into 40-year History of Cartography Project

Embedded within a four-decade-long endeavor to document the history of cartography is a deceptively simple question: What is a map?

In a world where most people interact with maps almost daily, pulling them up on their smartphone to effortlessly chart a path through the lattice of streets that lie between Point A and Point B, the map, at first glance, is a tool.

But ask a generations-spanning team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison what a map is, and they’ll give you a more complex answer. Maps are more than a flattened rendering of the land around us, said Matthew Edney, a senior scientist at UW and a professor of geography at the University of Southern Maine.

“They’re cultural documents,” he said. “They’re social instruments.”