Maps and views blog

3 posts from October 2011

20 October 2011

British Library and British Museum: Who's who?

Until recently, if you asked Google Maps to direct you to the British Library it would instead whisk you straight to the British Museum.

Whilst the correction of this error is good news, not least for the vehicles transporting the 7 million British Library books for the Google digitisation project, the confusion between Library and Museum persists:

Image © 2011 Google © 2011 Tele Atlas

The confusion is understandable: both the British Library and British Museum are vast repositories of stuff, much of it historical and very special. Both have ‘British’ in their name. The two were in fact one and the same institution until 1972, and only became physically separate when the British Library moved a mile up the road to St. Pancras in 1998. 

Confusing the Museum and the Library is an error not exclusive to Google, but politicians, prominent TV historians, visitors, even writers of things known as letters. The BM has now stopped forwarding on the BL‘s mail addressed to them by mistake, presumably with the loss of many hundreds of jobs.

Clearly, Google’s mistake is not the sort of co-ordinate error which places a fast food outlet in the middle of Tower Bridge (and for more on such errors see this blog post). The mistake reflects a popular assumption. Maybe it is entirely appropriate that the map should lead one to the wrong place. The map reflects reality. At least, that’ll be my excuse when I’m late for work tomorrow, having followed it to the wrong/right place.


14 October 2011

A bit about map collections

There are a number of great map collections around the world in public and private ownership.

The British Library map collection isn’t the largest – with 4.5 million maps still some way behind the Library of Congress Map Division's 5.2 million, nor can it claim to be the strongest in terms of early maps (the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.) It is more its combination of size, scope and significance that makes the collection the best in the world.

Taken as a whole, the collection is vast and complex. In fact, it is is probably more useful to think of the map collection as composed of smaller collections, many of them formally private collections, which found their way into public ownership in 1753 and later. Each have their own focus, peculiarities and research strengths. What I’d like to do is begin to introduce some of these collections to you. I might as well start with the Daddy of them all.

1. The Geographical Collections of George III (incorporating the Topographical and Maritime collections)



Type: printed and manuscript maps, topographical views and prints, architectural drawings, with worldwide coverage

Size: approximately 50,000 items

Dates of coverage: c.1540 – c.1824

Former owner: the Royal map collection, the bulk of which collected by George III (reigned 1760-1820)

Date reached British Museum: 1828 (Maritime collection in 1844)

Star items: too many to mention, but here goes: the Duke’s Plan of New York (pictured), the Roy map of Scotland, the Klencke atlas, architectural drawings by Nicholas Hawksmoor, drawings by Bernardo Bellotto.

Key research areas: British 18th century colonial history, the Americas, British topography.

Unusual facts: George III hated travelling. The maps were stored next to his bedroom.

Catalogues: British Library Search Our Catalogue

Online Links:  Help for reasearchers pages; Online exhibition of watercolours, topographical drawings and prints from the collection.

Further reading:  Peter Barber, 'George III and his collection'. An electronic offprint from The wisdom of George the Third: papers from a symposium at the Queen's gallery, Buckingham Palace June 2004(London: Royal Collection, 2005.)

03 October 2011

An inaccurate map

The recent controversy surrounding the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World was interesting in all sorts of ways.

Photo: Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World 

To recap: the publicity which accompanied the new 13th edition of the Times Atlas focused upon changes visible on the maps which had been wrought by environmental change. We saw the Aral Sea - or more appropriately the Aral mudflat. We also saw the eastern coast of Greenland with alarmingly diminished ice cover – 15% less ice than in 1999 according to the press release.

“We’re all going to die!” shouted the majority of the inhabitants of Norfolk, and promptly ran for the hills. “Hang on a minute, this can’t be right” shouted an incensed scientific community. And united in fury at the obvious inaccuracy (as well as not having been consulted in the first place), they forced concessions including an apology from the publishers HarperCollins, a promise to include an updated insert map, with a printed explanation of the error. Science showed cartography who was boss, no mistake there.

Whether the error was the result of deception or just a horrible misunderstanding (and it is difficult to believe the former), perhaps the only real mistake of the map was to define the incorrect border between the white (ice) and brown (once ice) so very clearly. The map, in short, was too good, and that made it terrible. My own pocket atlas shows a far more gradated, blurred division between ice and non ice. Actually, if you look at it in a certain way and with certain intent, it does seem to agree with the withdrawn claims. Now you see how very dangerous maps can be.

The widespread astonishment which greeted the revelation of an inaccurate map will have raised a wry smile amongst those of you who recognise the inherent subjectivity of maps.

However, to me the most interesting point about the argument is that it concerns the receding of ice-cover, a process of movement, whilst the map is a snapshot of a static and unmoving earth. Not a brilliant thing to show movement and change. Even while the atlas was being printed, the situation would have changed. At a sufficiently large scale, local changes in the ice would happen before our eyes. Why not publish a seasonal atlas, one for the summer months, one for the winter months, if you want to try and catch the flow, as well as the ebb.