I am sure every researcher has been prepped about the necessity and inevitability of failure in the research process. That being said, it still came as a surprise to me when I realized just how difficult thorough data collection is while trying to envision how I would improve a map depicting Influential Centers for Polyphonic Music in 15th-16th-century Europe. The initial map suffered from the conflation of two completely separate ideas: people and places. The map depicts the travels of major early polyphonic composers, but its title suggests that it will be highlighting places where polyphonic music was being created during the 15th and 16th centuries.
To try and improve this map, I wanted to scale down the number of composers to a more reasonable number of just three. I got to work on the tedious process of finding important moments in the composers’ lives, notable compositions, dates, and locations and plotting these points on a spreadsheet. The end result was not as comprehensive or substantive as I had hoped it would be, as I mostly focused on compositions. The specifics of date and location that I needed for my spreadsheet meant I had to leave a lot of compositions out of the final map.
When I went to combine my data with that of another classmate who was also focusing on improving the same map, Will, I was excited to fill out my research. Will had worked on documenting the travels of six composers of the time (including the three that I focused on), but did not include any of the notable events that occured in their lives as they moved throughout Europe. We got to work filling in details about what the composers were doing at each of their major stops in life and some of the compositions that we could associate with each location. Our final map details the journeys of seven composers in total. While this map is not perfect by any means, it taught me a lot about what I will need to do in future mapping projects. As Emily Hynes suggested, it is helpful to think about what I want the final project to look like and let that final vision inform my research. Instead of speculating on how I will be displaying the information I gather, I should be thinking about how a particular method of displaying data (heat mapping, storytelling, etc) will change what type of research I am doing and where I am looking for that information. I was particularly reassured by Mark Monmonier’s books, How to Lie with Maps. It reminded me that every map will have to leave something out or distort some aspect of its image in order to show something else effectively. Bethany Nowviskie’s book, How to Play with Maps, taught me that there is room for experimentation in map-making, and that maps do not have to live in the rigid and scientific sphere that we often perceive they live in. By having a final goal in mind, allowing myself to be creative, and being transparent about the white lies that have to be told in my maps, I am excited for the work I will be able to do with maps going forward.
Amen! So many great lessons in this post: embracing low-stakes failure as a learning opportunity, thinking of maps as sandboxes in which to experiment, acknowledging the need to always select data or design techniques to make maps legible and meaningful. You’re already learning so much! I have to remind myself of these lessons from time to time, but I’m getting better at embracing what is wonderful about the maps you and your classmates are making, rather than focusing on the flaws or gaps. Can’t wait to see the final product of your collaboration with William!