A few years ago, a colleague asked me for help in finding a map. What he wanted, he told me, was a fairly up-to-date map that showed Great Britain at ‘a normal scale’.
After laughing briefly at him, and then apologising for my rudeness, I plucked a road atlas from one of the bookshelves in our staff reading room. Fortunately, this seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
With the benefit of hindsight, I think that there are two morals to this story:
1. What is obvious to one person is not obvious to another. Like any good researcher, my colleague should have tried to explain what he wanted in a less ambiguous way. Equally, like any good public services archivist, I should have helped him to shape his request into something more sensible.
2. There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ map. The features and attributes of any map (including its scale) depend on its purpose. Why was it made and what was it intended to be used for? Two maps of the same place made at roughly the same time, but for different reasons, can look quite unlike one another.