Enhancing geographic literacy: All maps distort, so which ones should we use?

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Fritz Kessler, a senior research associate in Penn State’s Department of Geography, was awarded a Gladys Snyder Education Grant from the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences (EMS) to support his project “Map Projection Use in World Atlases (1850-2000): Rise of the Pseudocylindricals,” which examines the history of map publishing.

“When you create a map, you use mathematical processes to project Earth’s spherical surface onto a flat surface. We know that all maps are distorted representations of Earth,” Kessler said.

A well-known example of this is the Mercator projection — first presented in 1569 and found in world atlases through the 19th century — which distorts landmasses. On this type of projection, Greenland appears to be as large as the continent of Africa. Distortions like this are believed to adversely impact peoples’ mental maps, perceptions of the world, and their geographic literacy.

As criticism of the Mercator projection grew in the late 1800s, interest in a type of projection called “pseudocylindrical” resurfaced to address its flaws. 

“In fact, there was rather intense competition between the various map projection inventors of the time. Each developer tried to produce the best Mercator replacement projection and some found sanctuary in popular world atlases (e.g., Times World Atlas or Rand McNally’s Universal Atlas of the World),” Kessler said. 

Kessler’s research will address three questions: Which pseudocylindrical projections were selected by world atlas publishers and why; were there any trends; and were there biases in adopting projections?

“The primary value from this research is to communicate to students the ongoing importance of geographic awareness and the role that maps and map projections play in that awareness,” Kessler said. “For students to be successful contributors to a global society, geographic literacy must be a mainstay of the higher educational curriculum, particularly in undergraduate geography courses.”

Philanthropy of Gladys Snyder

In 1974, Gladys Snyder created the Gladys Snyder Faculty Enrichment Fund to aid in the professional development of junior faculty members in EMS. She and her husband, Harry, also established the John G. Miller Memorial Scholarship Fund in 1955 in memory of her father, John G. Miller, a successful coal, coke and iron broker until his death in 1927. The fund provides scholarship support to EMS students with a preference to first-year students. Her interest in Penn State stemmed from her father’s deep interest in helping young men who could not have otherwise gone to college. Over the years, Mrs. Snyder gave generously to EMS. She died on March 5, 1997.  

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Last Updated February 15, 2016