Looking at old maps and cartograms seems particularly relevant in a time when we’re all thinking about how information is relayed and consumed. The map of the world now centers squarely on the user. Online mapping, via sites like Google Maps, MapQuest, and Yahoo Maps, GPS chips in our phones and cars, and all the smartphone mapping apps, have allowed us to create custom maps and overlay our personal histories on geographical charts. What’s next in our journey to measure and display the world around us? It surely won’t be a folded piece of paper, but what is it?

Here are three maps that don’t conform to the badly-folded-paper-jammed–in-the-glove-compartment variety and which have caught my attention recently:

- This illustration depicts a 19th-century Inuit carvings of the coast of Greenland. The carving served as a tactile map—you could canoe along the coastline and follow the undulations of the land with your finger. When you come to the end of the map, you flip it over and the portable coastline continues down the other side. It floats, it’s waterproof, and it doesn’t require literacy or even good light. Brilliant.

- The 1675 English road map above shows the way from Newmarket to Wells-Next-the-Sea and on to Bury St. Edmunds in a stylized scroll format. While the map details the physical features and villages along the 115-mile route, the scroll or strip format doesn’t show context or orientation—the mapholder can’t see that Cambridge is just 14 miles beyond Newmarket, for instance. The format is pretty straightforward about how to get from Point A to Point B, and seems remarkably similar to TripTiks, the 20th-century customized trip maps prepared for drivers by AAA.

- Minard’s famous cartogram of Napoleon’s campaign and retreat from Russia (discussed here on Strange Maps, a favorite blog of mine) is the benchmark of clear and cool info-graphics. It condenses an encyclopedia worth of harrowing data (not just the army’s route, but its dwindling size, plus the variable weather and the timeline) into an accessible one-sheet image.

  • If you’re a map-fiend like me, you may want to bookmark these sites:
  • Strange Maps: An always compelling blog dedicated to, well, strange maps.
  • Maps are Territories: A scholarly, but accessible, look at maps across different cultures
  • Bldgblog: An architecture and design blog that often deals with maps.
  • Google LatLong Blog: A blog by the people who develop code and products for Google Maps and Google Earth.

And let me know if you find any new ways of looking at the world.

Ann Shields is an online senior editor at Travel + Leisure.

Inuit image from The Umiak Expedition to East Greenland 1884-85. English scroll map is from the 1675 Britannia Atlas by John Ogilby.