“Everything we do is some kind of spatial interaction with objects or ourselves,” says John Hessler, Specialist in Geographic Information Systems at the Library of Congress. “A map is a way to reduce this huge complexity of our everyday world.” For the last few decades, Hessler has been conducting research in the library’s map collection—the largest in the world —in stacks the lengths of football fields. “Geographic information systems have revolutionized everything,” he says.
Explorers have long filled in our understanding of the world, using and then discarding the sexton, the compass, MapQuest. “The project of mapping the Earth properly is to some extent complete,” Hessler says. But while there are no longer dragons fleshing out far-flung places, a surprising number of spaces are still uncharted—and the locations we’ve discovered to explore have only expanded. “Where we were just trying to accurately map terrestrial space,” Hessler says, we’ve moved into a “metaphor for how we live. We’re mapping things that don’t have a physical existence, like internet data and the neural connections in our heads.”
From mapping the dark between stars to the patterns of disease outbreaks, who is making maps today, and what they’re used for, says a lot about the modern world. “Now anything can be mapped,” says Hessler. “It’s the Wild West. We are in the great age of cartography, and we’re still just finding out what its powers are.”