Maps. We look at them all time, nestled between blocks of text in articles and textbooks or on classroom walls, and we never give them a second thought. We accept them as they are—why? Because that’s what’s easy. We assume it shouldn’t be that difficult to gather information and throw points on a map…or so I thought, until I was saddled with the task myself.

My goal was to improve upon a map given to me, entitled “Religious divisions in Europe, c.1560”. As this is for musicological research, I decided my 3-day mini project was best spent adding musical compositions and composers to the given map, as well as broadening my scope to the entire 16th century. So I took my spot in the music library, sprawled out my things, and got to work. I was ambitious. I was hopeful. Setting out to gather as much information as I could, and I came up with four categories: composers, pieces, years composed, locations composed, and recordings of the compositions.

Little did I know this was more data than I could easily obtain with my 3-day deadline.

The scholarship we’d read in class was constantly warning us about this pitfall—there is no way to accurately map everything, so don’t try. David Bodenhamer outlines in his “The Spatial Humanities: Space, Time, and Place in the New Digital Age” the many issues digital humanists encounter with GIS, a software meant to aid in the process of organizing and assembling maps. He says vagueness is nearly impossible to represent and the messy nature of humanity will not go through a magic machine and spit out a beautiful error-free, easy to see map. I encountered so many of these issues. Simply researching and finding my 20 or so well earned data points was difficult (as 16th century data is hardly known for its accuracy and completeness). There was no good way to highlight my uncertainties. They were just there, displayed like fact, staring at me, ready to be misinterpreted by the lay reader (or in this case, viewer).

Once I saw my data on the map, I quickly recognized the true extent of my incomplete data. My worst fear, Mark Monmonier’s “How to Lie with Maps”, was becoming my reality—my data wasn’t comprehensive, and thus, I was lying to practically everyone. The compositions I chose were not all of the compositions written in the 16th century. My compositions were largely disproportionate in favor of the Lutherans. Most of my points were in the Holy Roman Empire and in England. The data I had was so misleading. What was I to do?

The answer? I was to keep it in mind for next time. I don’t know what sort of grandiose map I expected to lay in front of me after my 3-day adventure, but that doesn’t matter. My end result is not great, but it’s a start. I know now what can be considered a realistic expectation for myself. The scholarship was right—no matter how ambitious we are, we can’t do it all, and nor should we fool ourselves into thinking we can.