THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

Introduction

Our earliest map appears on a coin made in the Roman Empire and our latest appears as pixels on a computer screen. In between we have the most complete set of Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain, the grand collection of an 18th-century king, secret maps made by the Soviet army as well as the British government, and a book that stands taller than the average person. Read more

10 December 2018

Accuracy? Do me a favour!

'Atlas: a world of maps in the British Library' is a different sort of atlas to, say, the Times world atlas or the AA motoring atlas, because you would never use it to find your way from A to B or peruse potential venues for your next holiday.

This is largely because the maps in it are mostly pretty old and do not all conform to our modern idea of accuracy.

The most common question people ask me about an old map is “is it accurate?” On such occasions I would like to be able to sound one of those alarms like in the BBC quiz show QI. But to be polite I tend to answer that “it is as accurate as it was possible to be” or “it is accurate for its time.”

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Angelino Dulcert (atrib.), [A portolan chart of the Mediterranean Sea (detail)], c. 1339. Add.MS 25691. 

Accuracy is relative and incredibly subjective. For example, 14th century 'portolan' sea charts look freakishly accurate because although they are really old we can recognise familiar coastlines in them. Yet if we look more closely, we see that each cape, bay and inlet is exaggerated and distorted in size because – guess what? – the map had to be legible for its user.

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William Roy, [A map showing the Trossachs, part of the fair copy of the military survey of Scotland], 1747-55. Maps CC.5.a.441., sheet 15 (part).

William Roy’s map of Scotland of 1747-55 looks very accurate, and indeed is regarded by some as one of the first modern maps and a precursor to the Ordnance Survey, but it hasn’t been geodetically measured, and the sweeping hill forms sit more in the realms of landscape art.

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Anon. [Map showing the position of the Indian tribes to the north-west of South Caroline, copied from a painting on deer-skin by an Indian chief, and presented to Sir Francis Nicholson], c. 1719.  Add. MS 4723.

The 1719 Native American map of Carolina is woefully inaccurate by these standards, but more accurate than anything else in its description of the complex interrelations between tribes (shown as circles) and European colonial powers (squares).

Few maps produced before the 19th century will pass muster if judged by contemporary standards of mathematical accuracy. But if we judge old maps by contemporary standards we can miss the genuinely insightful perspectives they provide on the periods and people they concerned.

They can also help to shine a light back onto ourselves. For who would have thought that a modern and ‘accurate’ map such as a motoring atlas would exaggerate and distort features such as roads in order for users to read them more clearly?

'Atlas: a world of maps from the British Library' is out now.

Tom Harper

11 October 2018

Published today, Atlas: a world of maps from the British Library

Believe it or not, the BL has never published an atlas before. It has published many other types of book, from exhibition catalogues to crime classics, but until today, no bound book of maps called 'atlas'.

There are a number of reasons why not, the principal one being that the British Library isn’t in the habit of making maps. It is, however, very much in the business of collecting maps, and over the past two and a half centuries it has collected rather a lot of them – 4 million to be moderately precise.

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Published today, Atlas: a world of maps from the British Library is a celebration of some of the oldest, prettiest, most significant, unusual, delightful, confusing and compelling maps from the 13th to the 21st centuries from the vaults of the British Library.

It has been arranged as an atlas, with world maps at the beginning, followed in alphabetical order by maps of the continents and selected regions, and ending with maps of the oceans, the cosmos and imaginary places.

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Cornelis Anthoniszoon, De vermaerde de Koopstadt van Amstelredam [Amsterdam, 1544]. BL Maps STA.29.

It is in many ways the definitive ‘historical’ atlas, because not only do the maps show the world of the past, but they show it in the language of the time. For example, where else can you see the grandeur of golden age Amsterdam through the eyes of one of its residents? How fitting to see an early 1970s map of the far side of the moon infused with the psychedelic technicolour of the time?

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Desiree E. Stuart-Alexander, Geological Atlas of the Moon: Central Far Side of the Moon. United States Geological Survey, 1978. BL Maps Y.81.

This atlas may not help you to get from A to B or to decide where to next go on holiday, but if you’re looking to travel back in time, here’s your chance.

06 July 2018

Insights from a mapmaker

The Maps & Views blog is written mostly by people who spend their time looking at maps. In this guest blog, by Kenneth Field, we are treated to some insights from somebody who is actually involved in making them. Ken writes:

'Making maps has progressed from filling empty spaces with mythical creatures to trying to unravel the complexities in data to present meaning with clarity. One way of demystifying cartography is to promote the idea that thinking is key. Approaching mapmaking by thinking about what you want your map to say, how to build something meaningful from visual ingredients, how people read the graphical signage, and what emotions you want to spark is the magic needed to make a better map.

Data and the tools to make maps have become ubiquitous and so many more people are making maps. Technology has made the mapmaking task fast, simple, and reproducible but thinking what the technology is actually doing helps you make a better map. It is almost incomprehensible to understand how maps were made even 20 years ago. Automation has played a huge role in design and production but in some ways it may have led to a lack of appreciation of what goes into making a good map. Making a map fast does not necessarily lead to a great map.

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Cartography doesn’t need to be hard and whilst there’s plenty of what might be called rules, these are just guidelines developed from decades of practice and people working out what works and why. Maps should be objective and have scientific rigor but there’s plenty of scope for creativity. Any design-led field sits at the intersection of science and art, and learning some of the rules means you’ll know when best to break them.

My current book, called Cartography.  (as in, cartography, full stop), is a product of my thoughts and experience on the world of cartography. It encapsulates the wisdom of many people who have taught me and from whom I have learnt. What I have tried to achieve is a translation of cartography from a specialist domain to one that builds a bridge between cartographer and mapmaker. I’ve tried to make the subject practical and valuable, not only as a reminder to professionals but as a companion to all who need to make a great map. We’ve all been beginners somewhere along our journey, and we’re all amateurs at some things. As a cartographic professional, I hope this supports people in their own cartographic journeys.

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Material is organized alphabetically, providing an accessible, encyclopedic approach rather than presented linearly as a traditional text book. The book, then, is a collection of not just my ideas but that of many, many experts in the wider cartographic, and allied fields. To that end, I believe it brings together the very brightest talent currently involved in both academic and commercial cartography to help me bring this book to life.'

Kenneth Field