Making Maps

Michael Siegel’s maps won’t help you plan a route to Atlantic City (or anywhere else), but they will provide you with a visually striking way to explore topics as far-ranging as the African slave trade or New Jersey’s Cold War missile sites.

Siegel, staff cartographer and teacher in the geography department at Rutgers–New Brunswick, is an expert in the creation of “thematic maps”—a type of map providing a thought-provoking window into history, politics, the economy, transportation, and other subjects. Rather than simply detailing geographic features and highways, thematic maps take a specific subject—the Underground Railroad, for instance (see Siegel’s map on that topic)—and use symbols, charts, and other visual elements and explanatory text to help readers learn about the topic.

His latest project, the maps for the book Mapping New Jersey: An Evolving Landscape (Rutgers University Press, 2009), helps readers learn about topics such as women in New Jersey politics, state Superfund sites, and the historical context of New Jersey’s population density. “I wanted everyone, from a schoolkid on up, to be able to understand each one of these maps, and to try to show things they might not have known about the topic,” says Siegel.

A Rutgers alumnus with a bachelor’s degree in geography and a master’s in library science, Siegel has been working in the geography department and teaching cartography since the mid-1980s. Though the tools have changed, what with the decline of traditional drafting and the advent of personal computing, Siegel views his role as “exploring the fundamentals of effective map design” with students.

And Siegel’s enthusiasm for the power of maps is contagious.

“I inherited Mike’s love of maps—digital or otherwise—from the class,” says Paul Savage, a former student of Siegel’s who is now a high school teacher at a magnet school in Scotch Plains, where he uses Siegel’s maps as teaching tools. “His maps tell stories as intricate, complicated, and thorough as any book.”

Mike changed my life. His cartography class opened the doors to my becoming a high school social studies teacher. I now view the world through a lens he helped me shape. Today I teach my high school students the same thematic map design principles I studied at Rutgers.

— Paul Savage, teacher at the Academy for Information Technology (part of the Union County Vocational-Technical Schools)

Students, researchers, and scholars in New Jersey—and around the world—use Siegel’s maps to help them understand topics as diverse as commercial shellfishing in New Jersey and the migration of African Americans within the United States. His maps have appeared in a variety of books, including Hiking the New Jersey Highlands and The Encyclopedia of New Jersey.

Sylviane A. Diouf, curator of digital collections at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, calls Siegel’s maps “very striking and very visual,” allowing people to see information in new and interesting ways. His maps appear in Diouf’s award-winning book Dreams of Africa in Alabama, as well as the library website In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience.

These sorts of maps provide context far beyond what’s available in typical maps. “A map can give you a holistic, quick impression of a lot of information,” notes Siegel. “If the map’s done well, the reader shouldn’t have to look at the text it accompanies in order to understand it.”

New Jersey’s Evolving Landscape


Michael Siegel discusses mapmaking and one of his latest projects, the book Mapping New Jersey: An Evolving Landscape, published by Rutgers University Press.