Adventures In Mapping

Rotating an old atlas page, as it ought to be rotated.

The other day the Library of Congress Map Division’s rather inspiring twitter account shared this lovely map illustrating the full 360° view of the White Mountains from the peak of New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington.

I stared at it a bit—initially to sort out what the deuce it was that I was looking at—and then with a deeper appreciation for the form.

It’s a painted bird’s eye view sort of perspective (bird’s eyes were all the rage back in the day) but rather than showing the landscape in one direction it wrapped around to show the entire view if one were to actually be standing there at the top.

I got to thinking that this sort of perspective, if designed today with our current sensibilities, would undoubtedly be represented as a wide panoramic image. The problem with panoramic images, however, is that they have such an extreme aspect ratio that they are somewhat unwieldy beasts, and also there is the arbitrary interruption from one extreme end to the other (which in real life are connected, stitched together around us in our view).

But the publisher of this book was working with a square page. Sure, they have two (facing) pages to work with but their solution is more of an inviting, and trippy, representation of looking all the way around. The form factor of a book allows for the easy rotating of it in one’s lap. It’s not a stretch to expect that someone reading this atlas could spin it freely without terrible inconvenience.

Spinning monitors around, however, isn’t so easily done. Here we are, more than a hundred years removed from this print, in a digital world with physical monitors and devices. We can’t so easily be expected to rotate them freely to visually explore a fixed image. But why not?

The act of scrolling is a now fully integrated and ubiquitous human/computer-interaction mode and in nearly any instance it’s the action a person takes when they want to see more of something. We are accustomed to scrolling to linearly reveal additional vertical lines of text or scrolling to zoom in or out to modify our view’s scale. But a rotational action is a nearly dormant degree of freedom rarely used —not so when we were holding an atlas in our laps.

All of this is to say that I thought maybe it would be an interesting opportunity to honor the artist and printer’s expectation of interaction these many generations later and let the map rotate along with our embedded interaction paradigm of show me more.

I asked my friend and frequent collaborator Jinnan Zhang about this sort of interaction and that evening he assembled something simple and wonderful. A look around the White Mountains that we can spin just like we might a beautiful old book.

Here’s a short recorded preview:

Visit the site to take a look around for yourself.

Love, John