I am so excited about the maps festival it’s embarrassing. I’m also glad that it’s going to shed light on an underrated aspect of the city–we’re really important, as far as maps go. Nick Paumgarten put it much better than I could in his 2006 article about Navteq (which started in Silicon Valley but moved to the Merch Mart): “Chicago, you might say, is the Sagres of the American imperium, a hub of geographic and cartographic expertise.” Rand McNally (started in the city, headquartered in Skokie) established our reputation, Navteq is its future, and the keeper of the flame is the Newberry Library, home to one of the greatest map collections in the world.

Take a moment to read Paumgarten’s article, by the way; he has a great conversation with Jim Akerman, the resident map expert at the Newberry. 

“The tension between these two modes of navigating [the itinerary, or strip, map and the road map] goes back to these maps,” he said. “The itinerary represents space as one experiences it on the ground. A map like this [a coastline map] has that element, but it starts to introduce the notion that you can conceive of it as a larger unit. It’s a God’s-eye view, which puts you in charge of navigating through space. This is the origin of the notion that you can pull yourself away from the world and see it from above.”

The irony is that centuries later, when we have perfected the God’s-eye map and become conversant with it, we have, in the thrall of technology, turned back to the ancient way: the itinerary and the strip map. OnStar and MapQuest zero in on the information that’s relevant to reaching your destination. “They close down your choices and give you a route,” Akerman said

Like Akerman, I was a map nerd–“Scratch someone who’s interested in the history of cartography and you’ll most often find someone who was into road maps as a kid”–who used his class reading time to pore over atlases, so the map festival, which opens November 2, is just going to be straight porn for me.