Maps and views blog

4 posts from November 2014

19 November 2014

These maps were made for walking

One of the most important modern purposes of maps is apparently helping people to walk from one place to another. It is probably the Ordnance Survey’s fault, putting pictures of ramblers on the front covers of their 1930s tourist maps, almost like a serving suggestion on the front of a cook book. ‘Here’s what you can use these maps for’.

Ellis Martin, cover illustration for Ordnance Survey "One Inch" Map, c.1930

It seems incredible to us now, but it was only at this time that maps really started to assume this particular use. In the 1920s and 1930s more people had more leisure time (and paid holidays), of course there wasn’t a big war to be fighting, and there were more leisure aids such as maps to assist them. The Rambler’s Association was formed in 1935.

50 years later, the whole experience of walking with a map was commemorated by the artist Richard Long in a piece of post-modern art called ‘Hundred Mile Walk’. He tried to capture his experience of a walk by using photographs, words, and the map.

Richard Long, 'Hundred Mile Walk', 1970-1. Mixed media (Tate).

It is an incredibly perceptive piece because it reflects upon the limitations of using words and images to adequately convey our experiences. It also makes us think about the reasons why we should wish to capture such experiences in the first place.

In the 1970s more people were watching television than walking around. Peoples’ experience of nature was increasingly via other media. The Ordnance Surveyor Landranger map had become as appropriate on the gallery wall in the 1970s as in the rambler’s hand in the 1920s.

A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps is published by the British Library

13 November 2014

Lines in the Ice: maps and the history of exploration

The history of maps and the history of exploration used to be one and the same. In the mid 19th century, when the first national map libraries and geographical societies were created and old maps began to be looked at and collected more systematically, their purpose was to illustrate the apparently ever improving knowledge of the geography of the world thanks to the intrepid explorers of the past.

There are many people who continue to hold on to this interpretation of maps, and that’s fine. There was a point in the past where European knowledge of the Arctic, for example, was worse than it is now, and we can claim today to know more about it than we ever have, even to the point of being able to map the Arctic sea-bed geology.

The problem with it is that it simplifies things and gives the impression of an irrepressible march towards a state of perfect knowledge. Notions of progress and determinism are more problematic today. We move backwards, sideways, at various paces in different circumstances. At various stages in their 16th century quest for a Northwest Passage, explorers such as Martin Frobisher and John Davis headed down dead ends and in wrong directions. Henry Hudson wasn’t looking for his eponymous bay when he stumbled into it. The path towards discovery was never a smooth one. In the Arctic, the very path changes with the ebb and flow of the ice.

The idea of a progressively more perfect march of maps also makes the rather large assumption that mapmakers were absolutely always cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die doing their best to tell the truth (as they saw it) in their maps. We can see evidence to the contrary in two cartographic treasures of the Tudor quest for the Northwest Passage.


George Best, [World Map], from 'A true discourse of the late voyages of discoverie ... under M. Frobisher', London: Henry Bynnyman, 1578. British Library G.6527.


The first is a map included in the description of Martin Frobisher’s voyage to the Arctic, published in 1578  to generate publicity in further journeys there to mine sparkly but worthless iron pyrite brought back from Canada (used to make roads around Dartford). If the world map is anything to be believed, Frobisher really was a dunce for missing the vast, gaping wide passage to the Indies. Exaggerated on the map, it was intended to give the impression to would-be backers that the next mission could not possibly fail!

Thorne 1576

Robert Thorne, Orbis Universalis Descriptio [London : T. Dawson for T. Woodcocke, 1582]. British Library C.24.b.35

Another map, produced in 1527 but published later in 1576, shows a completely different Arctic. There is no passage to the Indies, just the impenetrable bulk of North America. No way through there, then. How can two contemporary maps be so different? Because maps lie, and lie for a reason. Robert Thorne’s map was produced for the Muscovy Company, who wanted to direct resources and impetus to the Indies in the opposite direction, via a Northeast Passage over modern-day Russia.

The path to map perfection is strewn with false capes, dead ends, and more than a few icebergs.

Lines in the Ice: seeking the Northwest Passage , a free exhibition at the British Library, opens tomorrow (Friday). Hat and scarf recommended. 

04 November 2014

Maps Tag-a-thon: it’s online

Online participation in the Maps Tag-a-thon, launched 31 October with an event here at the Library, is open!  We invite remote enthusiasts to get involved in the tagging so that maps can be identified and then georeferenced so as to offer full geo-functionality (public domain!). The aim to is to find every map from amongst the million images.

   BL Maps tagathon2

Nearly 33% of the books have been reviewed, with over 6,000 maps found, since Friday - that's only five days! If you can join us in this amazing effort, have a look at the instructions on Wikimedia Commons.

A report on the event will come soon, but I wanted to flag up this opportunity. Thanks to all the help from the British Library Digital Research Team, OpenStreetMap and Wikimedia Commons!

03 November 2014

Lines in the Sea: underwater oil in the 20th century

As a new giant oil field is discovered in the North Sea we are reminded of the controversial and complex 20th century issue of underwater oilfields. Smeared across modern history, the discovery and exploitation of oil accounts for many of the momentous actions of the past century. Oil in the Caribbean, the North Sea, and the Arctic, continue to dominate international politics.  

It was only in the 20th century that the technology existed to locate and extract oil from under the sea(and the ability use it in prodigious quantities). But even prior to comprehending that logistical nightmare sits the tricky and subjective issue of establishing 'ownership' of the sea - demarcating sovereign rights. How exactly does one draw a line on water? Where should the line be and upon what basis? What happens when the water takes the form of land, as with the frozen Arctic Ocean? 

This Norwegian map, included in the new British Library publication 'A History of the 20th century in 100 maps', shows the pattern of oil exploitation under the North Sea in 1975. The grid represents the licence areas for prospecting for oil, the colourful Tetris-like blocks those areas at that time being exploited. The UK coast is in yellow to the lower left, whilst Norway occupies the upper right. 


Oil and gas were discovered under the sea in the 1950s, and the 1964 the Continental Shelf Act carved up the North Sea amongst its coastal nations. The issue of where to divide the sea between Britain and Norway became particularly controversial. The boundary was equidistant, drawn according to lines of latitude and longitude. You can make it out out by the difference in size of the licence area boxes (the British ones, to the left of it,  are smaller, evidence of Britian's wish to squeeze every last drop from the licensees). Using the earth's parallels and meridians is one way to draw a line. The border between Canada and the United States, or between North and South Korea, are similar such land borders. Another way is to use the physical geography of the earth, such as the Pyrenees which form a natural border between France and Spain.

The same can be true of features on the sea bed, and in the 1970s in Britain, suffering from the  Middle East oil embargo, with economic malaise and high unemployment, it was argued as such. There is a deep blue area on the map which curved around Norway on the map, signifying deeper water. It was argued by some that this 'Norwegian Trench' limited Norway's continental shelf to the area within that trench. However, Norway's eventual area of the North Sea got was far greater, encompassing the giant Esofisk oil field which is visible at the lower centre of the map. So desperate had Britain been to realise the benefits of the North Sea oil revenue that it ceded more to Norway just to avoid protracted negotiations. It was called by critics 'the most generous present in English history'. 

Our forthcoming exhibition Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage (opening on 14 November) will showcase the same controversial issue in the oil-rich Arctic Ocean.

The same two demarcating principles have been employed by states with Arctic coasts. On the one hand, the principle of 'Sector Theory' projects northward the eastern and western limits of a state until they meet at the North Pole. That state claims more-or-less the sector contained therein. This has traditionally been seen as the basis for Canada's claim (though Canada has never formally stated it). On the other hand, physical geography, the geology of the sea bed, and natural features such as the Lomonosov Ridge, have been more recently presented as a natural demarcation of Russia's continental shelf, an extension of its sovereign territory underwater.

NWterritories 1926

Canada, Department of the Interior, 'Map of the Northwest Territories', Ottawa, 1926. British Library Maps 70420.(36.).

Borders and boundaries can be based on all sorts of things. The interesting things about these underwater claims are their use of science to support them, and the use of maps to affirm them. There remain, however, many other layers, boundaries and borders of varying visibility, and each of them may be used to argue some claim, however spurious, even those derived from the old-fashioned 'invasion' method. The very absence of borders of Inuit lands does not void their claim to their land and frozen sea. The lack of an Scottish-English border in the North Sea oil map (indeed, Scotland is not even named) has been a continuingly divisive issue within Britain (the Queen's turning on of the first pipeline to Aberdeen in 1976 was Scottish police's biggest operation).

Amidst all of this, what about those states with no coastline bordering an oil rich ocean? They might very well feel left out, and feel justified in drawing up yet another map with another set of lines and boundaries which supports their claim. One may ask on what possible basis such a claim could ever be founded. When the prize is oil, the argument has clearly always been worth having.

Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage opens on 14 November

A history of the 20th century in 100 maps is published by the British Library