Sunday, October 12, 2014

Reflections on Geography

In "No Geography Department?  No Problem" The Map Collection at Cornell University Library and the Humanities," the author, Boris Michev, describes a conversation he had with the parent of an incoming student.  "So, you have more than 350,000 maps, atlases, journals, and books, and no Geography Department?!  Who then uses the collection?"  Michev answered that "people are 'doing geography' all over the Cornell University campus - researching historical and present boundaries, examining linguistic groupings, imagining how a particular place looked 100 years ago..." and so on.

Geography, according to our module, "is...about the world we live in."  The subject is vast plays a role in many of the social science disciplines we've studied thus far.  Geography is animals and habitats, it is weather conditions and natural phenomena, it is boundaries, it is politics, history, anthropology.  It is past and present and future.

The variety of sources we reviewed this week attests to this fact.  We visited the National Geographic website, where topics include animals (including a sweet video of a pet deer named Dillie who has her own bedroom and eats Tootsie Pops), cave art, Ebola, solar flares, and Swaziland’s “playboy king.  According to the website, National Geographic is interested in “geography, archaeology and natural science, and the promotion of environmental and historical conservation.”  This is content that can be studied by students and interested parties of all ages, for both learning and entertainment.  Geography is accessible and accommodating, the website demonstrates.  Geography is for everyone.

CityLab, which we also reviewed this week, covers topics that are similarly diverse, though it does not include content on animals.  The front page even features a story about the same cave art discussed on the National Geographic website.  The style of writing here – which is occasionally snarky and often conversational – indicates that the intended audience is narrower than that of National Geographic.  Writing style speaks to access, and here the site hopes to make information accessible to those who might roll their eyes at National Geographic or other similar sites, all while sharing the same materials.

Online searches for “geography” tend to yield results that are narrow in focus, primarily involving maps and other cartographic materials.  For example, in a Google search for “geography librarian,” the first result led to the Geography and Map Reading Room at the Library of Congress, where the bulk of the collection is maps, globes, and the like.  Prior to this module this is what I thought of when I considered the subject of geography.  But, Michev clearly indicates, even if geography is “just” maps, there is much to be gained from studying them beyond learning about land boundaries. 

In the above-cited article, Michev discusses the ways in which geographic materials have been integrated into other studies on the Cornell campus.  He beings by describing for the reader a project to map The Grapes of Wrath when the incoming freshman class of 2009 read it as a group.  He says that the novel can be read “from multiple perspectives – as literature, as a sociological or political study, or as an economic report on the poverty of the 1930s” (p. 70).  In illustrations, he shares the many ways in which the experiences of the Joad family were illustrated: overlaying a map of wind erosion that resulted from the Dust Bowl, or mapping the family’s itinerary along Route 66, all while emphasizing the extent of the Dust Bowl, the “migrants’ destinations, and the efforts of the federal administration to accommodate them” (p. 72).

While not related to geography, the article “Creating an online tutorial to support information literacy and academic skills development”(Thornes, 2012) addresses utilizing technology to provide access to learning tools, in this case using the web to “provide a resource students could use to improve and develop their information literacy and academic skills” (p. 82).  As with the activities above, it calls to mind the now-inexorable link between technology and access to information, as well as being reflective of the creativity needed to facilitate that access.  The activities at Cornell and those of the School of Geography at the University of Leeds, Thornes' institution, have more in common than that they originate from geology departments.  They both focus on reaching out to information users in ways that are meaningful, meeting users on their terms, and providing materials of interest in ways that resonate.  Regardless of our institution, our mission, or the materials we hold, this is what we as librarians strive for.  This is what we have in common.

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