Staffer maps campus past, future and identity

Responsible for creating and constantly amending official maps of Western, Karen Van Kerkoerle, Western’s Cartographic Specialist, is also the go-to person when faculty across a range of disciplines need maps, templates and custom illustrations to help add breadth and context to their work.

Maps are more than gridded sheets of paper or pixels on a screen. They are pathmakers, wayfinders, site-keepers. They not only help us visualize a defined space; they illustrate our need to have personal reference points that mark our specific place on the planet.

You. Are. Here.

Consider the mission of Karen Van Kerkoerle, Western’s Cartographic Specialist, who lives the technical and philosophical art of mapmaking.

Responsible for creating and constantly amending official maps of Western, Van Kerkoele is also the go-to person when faculty across a range of disciplines need maps, templates and custom illustrations to help add breadth and context to their work.

“Geography is more than just place names. It’s all the things that inform your spaces: the politics, the economics, the social setting,” said Van Kerkoerle, a staffer within the Cartographic Section of the Department of Geography.

For 18 years, her pen and mylar sheets – and more recently, her computer – have been at the heart of accurate and creative visualizations that not only tell us where we are but describe a bit of who we are.

We are Windermere Manor – the former Smallman family home, built in 1925 when most of the area was still farmland at Western Research Parks in the north end of campus. We are Mustang Field and Alumni Field – unveiled in 2013 as newest home of the soccer and rugby at the south end. In between those spaces, we are the research labs, libraries, study rooms, green spaces and gathering places, coffee spots and parking lots.

The map, like Western itself and like Van Kerkoele’s career, is ever-changing.

“The nice thing about the discipline is you get to learn a lot of interesting things.” Her career, she jokes, “has been all over the place, all over the map.”

When Van Kerkoele was a kid, she would eagerly anticipate each month’s issue of National Geographic. Where others might scan the magazine for wildlife photos or essays on little-known civilizations, she would carefully pull out the maps, pore over them and hang them on the walls of her bedroom.

“I just loved how they did their maps: the colours, the font, everything.”

Today, she is kindling other kids’ imaginations as adjudicator of Canadian entries into the International Cartographic Association’s Barbara Petchenik Children’s World Map Competition. Van Kerkoerle took her first cartography course as an undergraduate and soon realized she was hooked. She went on to specialize in geographic information systems (GIS) mapping.

When she began her career, map creation and revisions took place on a type of plastic called mylar, each sheet adding or subtracting a different feature. Now computer-aided design with GIS mapping and digitization are the standards for map-making.

Maps have come a long way since they were hand-drawn representations of the known world and the uncharted areas of here-be-dragons. Ironically, though, even with all this information at our fingertips, we may be poorer map-readers than previous generations were.

“Students nowadays have mobile devices. Directions are more available than ever before because they’re in the palm of your hand. But people don’t have much understanding of maps in general.

“Even if you’re off by three metres, it makes a difference because you don’t want to go looking for a bike lane and find yourself on a road instead.”

A good map literally involves layers of complexity. It must be accurate, simple and elegant at the same time.

While it’s essential each feature be exactly right, it’s equally important the map be easily understood by its users: Are its components appropriate, its colours legible? Can readers tell this road goes one way for cars and two ways for bicycles? Is it clear that this is a building and that is a parking lot?

There’s also both an art and a science even to choosing which lettering is most appropriate. (In case you’re wondering, the Western map font in most cases is Gill Sans, condensed).

The Western Interdisciplinary Research Building is a lovely new facility, she said, but its name size relative to its footprint requires some careful kerning and placement to avoid having its lettering spill over into a whole other mapping feature.

“They always seem to put the largest name on the smallest building footprint,” she said with a grin.

Maps provide not just directions, but insights, guidance not just how to get from here to there, but what spaces exist between destinations.

While GPS has taken over in people’s vehicles, Van Kerkoele’s go-to on longer destinations is the Ontario Road Atlas, the coil booklets requiring users to flip a page or a few to work their way from one region to another.

“I get that most people use a phone now, but I just like the hard-copy map.”