A critical cartography of online oral history maps?

This is Part 4 of a 4 part series.

This post follows Part 1 (Presenting oral history online), Part 2 (Maps, and how they are used in oral history) and Part 3 (Narratives, place-making and oral history maps) In Part 3 I argued that oral history maps have a narrative of their own, one that tends to be place-based and created from layers of meaning that are built up over the narrative of the map, and in combination with those of the stories and the images that are pinned to them.

A brief look at critical cartography

Since the 1980s, critical cartography has set about exposing “hidden, and sometimes hideous, narratives embedded in maps”.i Map narratives, both because of their cultural embeddedness and the need for interpretation, can be difficult to trace. Over-familiarity with conventions of mapping can blind us to the nature of some of the narratives they contain, particularly when the conventions have been developed to create an illusion of neutrality (representation based on objective measurement/quantification and devoid of interpretation). Because maps based on quantitative data are now the norm, drawn up using well-established methodologies, and because we operate within established paradigms when we read maps, the narrative of the maps itself is often rendered invisible (or opaque). But maps are never neutral. To create them necessitates decisions about what information to include, and what information to leave out. Examining the decisions made during the process of map-making is a focus of critical cartography, and much of this work has emerged as an important component in the development of post-colonial studies. Here, the choices that have gone into maps as they are created (what is recorded, how it is represented, and what is omitted) tell their own stories of maps as a tool of control, of establishing boundaries, of laying claim to property. Critical cartography suggests that maps in general can be documents that reveal a story, and that they are, therefore, narratives, even if the narrative that they tell is not always apparent to their users.

Critical cartography and map “mash-ups”?

Creating online maps and populating them with personal, commercial or community information is now possible through many online tools that are freely available. It has been suggested that the availability of these tools is a change that could initiate transformative map-making processes and technologies that are “widely distributed, and increasingly democratized”.ii Others have a less positive view of these technologies, noting that the “bottom-up potential” of these tools is not always realised, as the material will reflect the interests of the most active users rather than the public in general.iii This can create a hierarchy of locations, perhaps indicating that some mapping technologies are less potentially transformative than is often suggested.iv

In practice, Google Maps tends to be the most commonly used interface for user-generated map-based content.v Critics have voiced concern that the popularity of the Google Maps API, combined with the fact that Google Maps are based on private code, owned and controlled by for-profit organisation) means that Google has created a privatised representation of digital place that is fast becoming “the de facto digital globe”.vi

Digital maps, such as those created by Google have been developed through a convergence of private (corporate) and personal interests. This is in contrast to the development of nineteenth and twentieth century maps, when maps were largely political products driven by requirements of state:

Just as the specific interests of the nation state have largely shaped the reality produced by paper maps throughout the centuries, the recent convergence of interests between high-tech private companies and a small group of technologically savvy individuals is now shaping the reality produced through geosocial media.vii

Implications for oral history maps?

Does this have implications for how we see the narratives of oral history mapping projects? Google Maps is often the base map used in these projects – of the six oral history maps listed in Part 2, four examples were based on the Google Maps API.

Oral history projects that used the Google Maps API:

The two oral history maps that did not use Google Maps were:

Are there implications for the way these projects might be critically interpreted in the future? What effect does the frequent use of Google Maps associated with online oral history projects have?

It is likely that the typically small, not-for-profit, community and academic research organisations that create these mapping oral history projects are driven by considerations such as affordability, and the fact that map mash-up tools, such as Google Maps, are available at no cost is one of the keys to their popularity.viii Other considerations could include issues of accessibility and usability. The popularity of Google Maps amongst oral historians, and the deliberate choice of other maps by some projects, is surely an issue that merits some further research.


i Caquard, S. (2011). Cartography I: Mapping narrative cartography. Progress in Human Geography, 37(1), 135–144. doi:10.1177/0309132511423796 (see p. 136).

ii Branch, J. (2011). Mapping the sovereign state: technology, authority, and systemic change. International Organization, 65, 1–36 (see p. 32).

iii Elwood, S., Goodchild, M. and Sui. D. (2012). Researching Volunteered Geographic Information: Spatial Data, Geographic Research, and New Social Practice. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 102(3), 571–590.(see p. 584).

iv Caquard, S. (2013). Cartography II: Collective cartographies in the social media era. Progress in Human Geography, (OnlineFirst). doi:10.1177/0309132513514005 (see p.6).

v Li, S., & Gong, J. (2008). Mashup: a New Way of Providing Web Mapping and GIS Services. In ISPRS Congress Beijing (pp. 639–649). Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= (see p. 640).

vi Zook, M. A., & Graham, M. (2007). The creative reconstruction of the Internet: Google and the privatization of cyberspace and DigiPlace. Geoforum, 38(6), 1322–1343. doi:10.1016/j.geoforum.2007.05.004 (see p. 1341).

vii Caquard, S. (2013). Cartography II: Collective cartographies in the social media era. Progress in Human Geography, (OnlineFirst). doi:10.1177/0309132513514005 (see p.6).

viii Li, S., & Gong, J. (2008). Mashup: a New Way of Providing Web Mapping and GIS Services. In ISPRS Congress Beijing (pp. 639–649). Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= (see p. 639).

Narratives, place-making and oral history maps

This is Part 3 of a 4 part series.

Part 1 (Presenting oral history online) and Part 2 (Maps, and how they are used in oral history) discussed some thoughts on digital oral history and the use of maps as visual interfaces for online oral histories. Here, I build on some of the ideas presented in the earlier posts by exploring maps and oral histories as narrative mechanisms used in place-making.

How do we understand the idea of place? For cultural geographers, places are formed and understood through narratives.i While the definitions of a narrative are diverse and discipline-dependant, the crucial feature of a narrative is that it has meaning.ii Narratives make meaning within culturally and socially relevant contexts, they are informed by and embedded in cultural worlds.iii In terms of understanding place, narratives are the meaning-making structures that we use to change space into place.

Within oral history interviews, when a particular narrative style is borrowed or appropriated by an interviewee/narrator, this is probably because the individual sees the narrative style as appropriate to the story that is being told.iv There is no established narrative framework for an oral history interview and, likewise, there is not necessarily a well-established template for the oral historian to follow when preparing to disseminate interviews and the results of research digitally. Traditionally, archives were created. To fully explore the potential of digital oral history, the researcher must draw on other narrative genres in order to create their own narrative with the material they wish to disseminate. The map has been adopted by many oral historians working on place-based projects and within the digital realm as an appropriate format for the development of oral history narratives about place. This use of maps reflects a strong connection within our minds between maps and places, how they are visualised and understood in an explicit way (using a map) and in more subtle ways in stories.

To Massey, places are configurations of space that have a temporary meaning and purpose, and can mean different things to different people, and at different times.v These meanings can be re-purposed by others, and thus, while “places seem durable to the people who recognise and experience them……they are nonetheless constantly being recreated and subtly changing”.vi Because of this, places and the meanings associated with them are in a constant state of negotiation. Places are born out of this negotiation of meaning.vii Thus the creation of place is about the creation of meaning.

Linking place-based stories together in online oral history maps is a powerful means of creating narratives of place that incorporate visuals and memories. The process of creating these maps is a process of doing research.viii As the oral historian creates a digital map with oral histories and excerpts, the map becomes more than a simple visualisation on which interviews are pinned. Instead, the process of creating an oral history map is one in which a new narrative is created, one that stands separate to the map on its own, or to the oral histories on their own.

In terms of the aims of oral history mapping projects, the collection of narratives, about today and about the past, is a collection of memories. These projects are a collaborative attempt to put together material where individual memories combine to form a collective and public memory bank. People turn to this memory bank when they seek to form group identifies, collective narratives (perhaps local, perhaps national, or group-orientated) in order to identify and locate their own place in the world.ix This interpretation of the role of maps ties in with ideas of the process of mapping as both an attempt at representing space as it is, as well as a tool to use when imagining what that space might become.x When looked at in this way, an oral history map of memories can be seen as more than simply a record of the past and the people of today, but also an attempt to formulate, map-out and imagine a community identity for the future.

Part 4 continues here.


i Price, P. (2010). Cultural geography and the stories we tell ourselves. Cultural Geographies, 17(2), 203–210. doi:10.1177/1474474010363851. See page 203.

ii Reissman, C. (1993). Narrative Analysis. Newbury Park, London and New Delhi: SAGE Publications Ltd. See pages 17–19.

iii Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge. See page 107.

iv Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge. See page 114.

v Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. See page 141.

vi Pierce, J., Martin, D. G., & Murphy, J. T. (2011). Relational place-making: the networked politics of place. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36(1), 54–70. See page 58.

vii Massey, D. (2005). For Space. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. See page 140–141.

viii White, R. (2010). What is spatial history? Retrieved December 27, 2013, from http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29

ix Hoelscher, S., & Alderman, D. (2004). Memory and place: geographies of a critical relationship. Social and Cultural Geography, 5(3), 347–355. See page 348–349.

x White, R. (2010). What is spatial history? Retrieved December 27, 2013, from http://www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/pub.php?id=29