THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

13 posts categorized "Americas"

08 July 2020

World Map World Cup: Group 4

Add comment

We have come to the fourth and final qualifying group of our British Library world map world cup, and in it we have four extraordinary and breathtaking examples of cartography from between the 11th and 20th centuries. I hope the following descriptions, links and images will provide you with what you need to make your difficult choice.

Vote for your favourite over on Twitter (@BLMaps). The top two maps will go through to the quarter finals tomorrow, Friday July 10th. 

1.Beatus of Liébana world map. Drawn in Burgos, Spain, between 1091 and 1109 (Add.MS 11695)

Blog add ms 11695

The 15 surviving 'Beatus' maps are included in textual commentaries on the Apocalypse of St John (from the New Testament Book of Revelation) written by the Spanish theologian Beatus of Liébana (fl.776–86). The British Library’s example, arguably more powerful and brooding than the others, is a diagrammatic image with powerful pictorial elements. These include fishes swimming in the sea encircling the world, the‘molehill’ mountains and the unforgettable image of the Garden of Eden at the top of the map, in the east. It was produced in northern Spain (in the monastery of San Domingo de Silos) in around 1109, and as a result reflects Islamic pictorial influences that had spread from northern Africa.

Link to digitised example: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/beatus-world-map

Further reading: Peter Barber, 'Medieval world maps; in Paul Harvey, The Hereford World Map: medieval world maps and their contexts (London: British LIbrary, 2006).

David Woodward, 'Medieval Mappamundi' in The History of Cartography volume one (Chicago: CHicago University Press, 1987).

 

2. The Contarini-Rosselli world map. Engraving, published in Florence in 1506 (Maps C.2.cc.4).

Blog maps c.2.cc.4

This is the earliest surviving printed map to show any part of the Americas. It was published in Florence in 1506, only a decade or so after Christopher Columbus's first voyage in 1492. The map, which is by the Venetian Giovanni Matteo Contarini and Florentine Francesco Rosselli, has been celebrated for its American content ever since this only known copy was purchased by the British Museum in 1922. But it is an extremely early and partial glimpse of eastern America: Newfoundland and Labrador are shown cemented on to Kamchatka, Cuba and Hispaniola are floating next to Japan, and South America is joined to the vast Southern Continent.

Link to digital copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/first-known-printed-world-map-showing-america

Further reading: Patrick Gautier Dalché, 'The Reception of Ptolemy’s Geography (End of the Fourteenth to Beginning of the Sixteenth Century)' in The history of cartography volume three: cartography in the European Renaissance part one (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2010).

3. Aḍhāīdvīpa. Painted in Rajasthan in 1830 (Add.Or. 1814).

Add.Or 1814 blog with title

This is a map showing the structure of the world of Jainism, a religious system founded in northern India in the sixth or seventh century BCE. The map, which is in Sanskrit, was painted onto cloth in Rajasthan in 1830, and like many of the European medieval mappamundi, it illustrates a fusion of human and sacred geography. At the centre is the recognisable, terrestrial world of people (Mount Meru is at the centre, as it is in the Korean Ch’ ōnhado  maps). Surrounding it is the spiritual world: green concentric-ringed continents illustrated by lunar symbols and separated by fish-filled oceans, beyond which is the outer land of the jinas or prophets.

Link to digital copy: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_Or_1814

Further reading: Joseph E. Schwartzburg, 'Cosmological mapping' in The history of cartography volume two, book one: cartography in the traditional Islamic and South Asian societies (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994).

 

4. Self determination world map, by F. Klimesch. Published in Berlin in around 1919 (Maps CC.5.b.29).

Blog maps CC.5.b.29

The only 20th century world map to make it into our World Map World Cup competition (not that there aren't many great 20th century world maps, just a mere 16 places to fill), is a German map produced in the wake of the peace treaties following the defeat of Germany and the end of the Great War, 1914-1918. It shows the victorious allies Britain, France, Russia and the USA as soldier figures, holding leashes attached to their respective national beasts. These beasts have been placed over the colonies they controlled. 

The title explains why: 'What would be left of the entente if it made serious the right of self-determination of their own people and let go of the reins!' The map calls out the Allies' decision to confiscate German colonies under the principle of 'self determination,' but to retain theirs regardless. Given the century-long process of decolonisation that ensued, and ensues, the map is profoundly and powerfully prescient. 

Link to digitised copy: https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/was-von-der-entente

Further reading: Judith Tyner, 'Persuasive cartography' in The history of cartography volume six: cartography in the twentieth century (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2017), 1087-1094. 

 

30 June 2020

Potosí, the celebrated city

Add comment

Have you ever heard of Potosí? Or perhaps wondered what is so special about this Bolivian city that it appeared on the early maps of South America alongside the views of well-known places like Havana, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City? Most atlases produced from the mid-16th to 19th century included a map or an image with a description of this place, but why?

The reason that Potosí was put on the maps is rather extraordinary – in 1545 the Spanish conquistadors discovered the world’s richest silver deposits there. Within three decades a small mining settlement at the foot of the Andean Potosí Mountain in the Viceroyalty of Peru (present day Bolivia) was to become one of the world’s wealthiest cities with a population of over 160,000 surpassing that of Rome, Madrid or London at the time.

Blaeu Americae nova Tabula

Americæ nova tabula by Willem Blaeu, features views of famous cities along the top. Amsterdam, 1631. Maps 9.Tab.15,16.  Image: Wikimedia Commons

Potosí was the city with truly global impact. The vast deposits extracted from the Potosí Mountain also known as Cerro Rico (Rich Hill) provided over half of the world’s silver supply. Coins struck in the Potosí Royal Mint were in circulation worldwide reaching Asia and the Far East where they were readily accepted in exchange for oriental commodities such as silk, spices and porcelain. This sudden influx of silver revolutionized the world’s economy and many historians trace the beginning of the global economy back to Potosí’s silver boom. The city was so famous for its extraordinary wealth that its name became synonymous to richness and enormous value, so much so that even the expression valor de Potosí (meaning ‘worth of Potosí’) made its way into everyday language and is still used in modern Spanish. 

As with most other influential wealthy cities it was portrayed on countless maps. Topographical views of Potosí provide a glimpse of the industrial infrastructure in the area with a network of hydraulic ore-grinding mills shown in the background. The views are often accompanied by a short description of the mines which marvel over the seemingly limitless silver deposits and astonishing quantities of produced ore.

Maps C.24.aa.21

The Silver Mine of Potozi London, Phillip Lea, around 1700. Maps C.24.aa.21. 

A chart of South America Mount&Page

A chart of South America from the River Real to Cape Horn showing the Potosí Mountain within otherwise empty interior. Published in Atlas Maritimus Novus or the New Sea Atlas. London, R. Mount and T. Page, 1708. Maps C.27.g.1. Image courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

In order to extract and process the silver an enormous work force was required. The descriptive texts often quote that over 20,000 workers were ‘employed’ in the mines with no mention of the slavery, exploitation and the enormous human cost this lucrative enterprise involved. The contemporary authors of the time remain silent about the brutal conditions, the forced labour inflicted upon the indigenous population and the huge numbers of slaves brought from Africa and transported overland from Buenos Aires which was one of trading stations of the South Sea Company (a British enterprise trading slaves to the Spanish colonies in the Caribbean and South America). Hundreds of thousands of people perished in the Potosí mines during the colonial era due to exhaustion, accidents, gas and mercury poisoning. The celebrated mountain was dubbed the Mountain That Eats Men.

Maps C.46.f.12.

Map of South America by Herman Moll with an inset view of Potosi,. The map also indicates location of ‘The Great Mines of Potosi’. London, after 1714. Maps C.46.f.12. 

By the end of the 18th century the quantity of silver extracted from the mines of Potosí had diminished with most of the good ore exhausted. According to A Gazetteer of the World by the 1850s the city was a shadow of its former self with the population reduced to 14,000. The Potosí Mountain didn’t even make it to the List of the Principal Mountains on the Augustus Petermann's Peru-Bolivian Tablelands map issued with the Gazetteer. Potosí, once an influential city and the backbone of the Spanish Empire’s economy fell into decay and lost its prominent place on maps almost as quickly as it appeared in the 16th century.

10003.w.6 p.16
Peru-Bolivian Tablelands map … by Augustus Petermann published in A Gazetteer of the World, or, Dictionary of geographical knowledge ... Edited by a member of the Royal Geographical Society. Edinburgh & London, A. Fullarton, 1850-57. 10003.w.6.

04 June 2020

The history of cartography: shining a light

Add comment

The University of Chicago Press’s History of Cartography project reached another milestone in its 40-year history a few weeks ago, with the publication of volume four: cartography in the European Enlightenment. Congratulations to its editors and contributors.

Images
Cover image of the History of Cartography volume four (University of Chicago Press), published in 2020

Devised in the late 1970s by the historians JB Harley (1932-1991) and David Woodward (1942-2004), the project envisaged a six-volume history of maps and mapping. Volume one (European prehistory, Classical and medieval mapping) came in 1987, followed by Volume two, the cartography of non-European societies (1992), volume three, the European Renaissance (2007), and volume six, the twentieth century (2015). The final volume, covering the nineteenth century, is in production.

What was so ground-breaking about the project was its aim to understand maps in their contexts, treating them as social objects created by, and in turn influencing, the people and societies who made and used them. This was a ‘between the lines,’ critical history of maps. Shining a light on them. Calling them to account.

With the exception of volume four, the History of Cartography is available as free online PDFs. So if you have the time and space to educate yourself, particularly with reference to the current protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, it’s a good place to start.

For example, you might like to look in colonial maps of the 17th centuries and beyond at the issue of what Harley termed ‘silences’ in maps. Often what is absent from a map can be as insightful as what is actually shown. This is nowhere clearer than in maps of British India and North America, the latter including little or no indication of the slavery upon which colonial institutions were built (I recently referenced this in a discussion of Farrer's map of Virginia, below).

278.a.3
Virginia Farrer, A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills.... 1651. British Library 278.a.3.

You might also wish to look at the Cartography in the Twentieth Century to see how the use of maps by the powerful and privileged often led to greater levels of injustice and inequality.

For example, Jeremy Crampton’s essay on maps and the social construction of race (pages 1232-1237), and particularly Amy Hillier’s summary of the insidious 20th century practice of redlining (pages 1254-1260). Redlining was US location-based housing discrimination which figuratively and literally drew red lines around urban districts that were deemed undesirable to provide housing insurance or mortgages to due to the racial composition of their borrowers and owners. The effect was to drive these areas and the people living in them into the ground.

Home_Owners'_Loan_Corporation_Philadelphia_redlining_map
Home Owners' Loan Corporation map of Philadelphia, 1936 (Penn University)

Redlining map of Philadelphia, 1936

The practice was outlawed in 1977. But the impact of it, and the racist attitudes at the heart of it, remain prevalent in 2020.

Tom Harper

20 May 2020

Columbus - Mapping the New World

Add comment

The 20th of May marks the anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ death, a man whose name is immediately associated with early transatlantic voyages of exploration and discovery. When Columbus set off on his quest to establish the western sea passage to the East Indies he encountered entirely new lands. During his four expeditions he explored parts of the Caribbean including the Bahamas, Cuba, and Jamaica as well as the Central America coastal areas, claiming all of the encountered lands for the Spanish crown.

014461397

Map of the Americas featuring full length portraits of Columbus and other explorers, published in Americæ pars sexta. Siue Historiæ ab Hieronymo Bēzono... Frankfurt, 1596. G.6634.(1.). 

The age of exploration coincided with the invention of movable type printing in Europe and the last quarter of the 15th century saw the development of map printing which prompted an explosion in map production. The two commonly used techniques of printing maps in the 16th century were woodcut and copper engraving. This allowed for maps to be produced on a much larger scale reaching a broader audience like never before. Thanks to the wider circulation of printed maps and atlases the knowledge was no longer restricted to elite circles and news about the newly discovered lands quickly spread across Europe.

A unique example of what is believed to be the first printed world map showing any part of America is held within the British Library’s map collections. Designed by Giovanni Matteo Contarini and engraved by Francesco di Lorenzo Rosselli this extraordinary map incorporates Columbus’ discoveries made during his voyages to the New World. North America is depicted as a part of Asia extending across the North Atlantic, with the northern coast of South America delineated in detail and the West Indies identified as the Spanish discoveries of Columbus.

Maps C.2.cc.4

Mundu [sic] spericum ... by Rosselli and Contarini, the first known printed world map showing America. Florence or Venice, 1506. Maps C.2.cc.4.

The printed cartographic depictions of the New World were soon incorporated into atlases and produced in large numbers. Martin Waldseemüller's Tabula Terre Nove issued in the Strasbourg Ptolemy edition of 1513 is one such example. The map shows a land mass with a defined eastern coastline and the unexplored interior of the New World left blank. The Caribbean islands including Isabella (Cuba), Spagnolla (Hispaniola) and Jamaiqua (Jamaica) are depicted in detail although exaggerated in size.

1513 Maps C1d9

Map of the New World by Waldseemüller published in Claudii Ptolemei viri Alexandrini... geographie opus novissima traductione e Grecorum. Strasbourg, 1513. Maps C.1.d.9.

The process initiated by Columbus started a sequence of ‘voyages of discovery’ and not surprisingly was followed by the extensive exploration of the western hemisphere by other European nations venturing out in hope of establishing their colonies resulting in further mapping of the New World.

Sketchy maps displaying basic information were quickly surpassed by more detailed ones (although not necessarily accurate in modern terms) as the exploration and conquest of the newly discovered land progressed. A wealth of information gathered during these early expeditions provided mapmakers with enough detail to allow them to draw new maps and update the already existing ones. 

014459579

Occidentalis Americæ partis, vel, earum Regionum quas Christophorus Columbus primu[s] detexit Tabula Chorographica published in de Bry's Americæ pars quarta. Frankfurt, 1594. G.6628.(1.).

The European audiences were eager to learn as much as possible about the New World and there was a huge demand for written works on the subject. A very popular and influential series on voyages published by Theodor de Bry was richly illustrated with engravings based on the original watercolours by John White (which he drew during the 1585 expedition to Roanoke Island). Maps often incorporated images of indigenous people and their customs, flora and fauna in parts where geographical detail was lacking. This shaped the view the general public had on these distant exotic lands.

Sloane MS 1622_1622_f14v_15r

Virginia. Discovered and discribed by captayn John Smith 1606, graven by William Hole. ca. 1612. Sloane MS 1622, f.14v-15r

Nowadays Columbus is considered a controversial figure but his achievements transformed the world.

23 April 2020

A list of where to find free-to-access digitised British Library maps

Add comment

Here at the British Library we’ve been digitising our maps and making them available for over two decades now. Consequently, there’s a wealth of fantastic and inspiring free-to-view historic maps on the web. In addition to ever-increasing quantities of maps on our own platforms, our digitised maps are also hosted by other cultural institutions, organisations and individuals with whom we’ve been pleased to collaborate.

This seemed like as good a time as any to pull a load of them together and let you know about them.

So, in this first of two posts, here are a few of the places on the British Library’s site where you can find digitised maps, and upon finding them, use them escape to the ends of the earth (or the end of your street) from the comfort of your own home. Enjoy.

3D virtual globes

 https://www.bl.uk/maps/articles/european-globes-of-the-17th-and-18th-centuries

https://sketchfab.com/3d-models/willem-janszoon-blaeu-terrestrial-globe-1606-14a47c148bd446b2801c0b3fd7b58343
Willem Janszoon Blaeu's 1606 terrestrial globe. Maps G.6.b. 

We just did this, and we hope you like it. 3D virtual models of 10 of our historic globes from the 17th - 19th centuries with thanks to our Digitisation Services and digitisation company Cyreal. Another 20 will be added over the coming months.  

The Georeferencer

http://britishlibrary.georeferencer.com/start

The British Library’s Georeferencer isn’t strictly a collection of maps, since it draws its 56,000-odd maps from a variety of places (including the below sources). But you can definitely search for maps in it, for example by using this crazy map with all of the georeferenced maps located on it. Zoom in for it to make more sense, and find the area you’re interested in. 

The Shared Research Repository

The Shared Research Repository is a great place to find all sorts of British Library content, from catalogues to lists to PhD theses, to maps. This is a lively spot so keep checking in for stuff. Particular highlights are

Medieval maps and charts from the British Library and partners’ Shared Research Repository https://bl.iro.bl.uk/collection/b2393193-0749-4e81-991e-5cf394466b53

The Pelagios medieval maps project was a really excellent one which analysed and cross-referenced text contained in maps. with the added bonus of some digitised maps (thanks to funding from the A.W. Mellon Foundation).

British War Office maps of the former British East Africa  https://bl.iro.bl.uk/work/00de6f1f-a415-4b86-adb7-2a958cbdf085

Almost 600 maps, sketches and itineraries that formed the compilation material for published British War Office maps between 1870 and 1940. There is some amazingly detailed archival mapping in here. The work was generously funded by the Indigo Trust.

Picturing places

https://www.bl.uk/picturing-places/collection-items

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/a-portolan-chart-by-petrus-rosselli
Petrus Rosselli, [Chart of the Mediterranean Sea], Majorca, 1465. Egerton MS 2712.

 

900 or so images, many of them maps from the King’s Topographical Collection, illustrating a series of new and repurposed articles on the subject of illustrating place. The project was generously funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The Finnis Scott Foundation, Marc Fitch Fund and Coles-Medlock Foundation.

20th century maps

https://www.bl.uk/maps/collection-items

https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/schaffhausen-airey-neave-escape-map
Escape map of the Schaffhausen redoubt. War Office, 1940. Maps CC.5.a.424.

Here are round a hundred maps from articles produced as part of our 'Mapping the twentieth century: drawing the line' exhibition.

Online Gallery 

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/

The British Library’s Online Gallery was set up through the Library’s ‘Collect Britain’ project in the early noughties. There are thousands of maps on here, and although the Zoomify and browse facilities are no longer functioning (we’re in the process of migrating this stuff onto a new platform) there are still some great maps here, such as  

The Crace collection of maps of London

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/crace/index.html

http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/crace/a/007000000000002u00056000.html?_ga=2.98418783.1764258415.1587371764-718070083.1508136830
Wenceslaus Hollar, A new map of the citties of London Westminster and ye borough of Southwarke..., London, 1675. Maps Crace Port 2.56.


One of the finest collections of historic maps of London anywhere, collected by a commissioner of London’s sewers and George IV’s interior decorator. Around 1200 maps from between around 1550-1850, digitisation generously funded in part by the London Topographical Society. Crace’s collection of London views are held by the British Museum. 

All the maps from the Online Gallery are also available (in higher resolution) alongside maps from other collections via the Old Maps Online portal (with its fun geographical search tool). https://www.oldmapsonline.org/

Turning the Pages

http://www.bl.uk/turning-the-pages/?id=223c7af8-bad6-4282-a684-17bf45bd0311&type=book

This is another older British Library resource but it has a couple of really choice atlases in it. Are there any more choice atlases than Gerhard Mercator’s hand-made Atlas of Europe of 1570 (which contains the only two surviving maps drawn by the man himself)? Or one of the volumes from the famous multi-volume Beudeker Atlas containing maps and views of Dutch stately homes from the 17th and 18th centuries.

Digitised Manuscripts

http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/BriefDisplay.aspx

A number of maps and atlases held in the Western Manuscript collection have been digitised and found their way onto the Digitised manuscripts page. If you know what you're looking for you can search by pressmark. Or you can search by keyword (i.e. maps, plans etc.) if you're just browsing. 

Many highlights reside here, including the late 16th century Burghley-Saxton atlas (containing the first printed county maps of England and Wales in proof) at Royal MS 18.DIII http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Royal_MS_18_d_iii

Explore the British Library 

http://explore.bl.uk/primo_library/libweb/action/search.do?vid=BLVU1

http://explore.bl.uk/BLVU1:LSCOP-ALL:BLL01016593255
Jacques Callot, OBSIDIO ARCIS SAMMARTINIANÆ. Paris, c.1631. Maps C.49.e.75

The British Library's principal online catalogue does include thumbnail images for a tiny number of maps, but coverage is extremely uneven and the resolution of images is variable (to get a larger image for non commercial use, click on the map's title included in the right hand part of the details section). You may be lucky - for example if you're interested in Jacques Callot's map of the 1627 siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré. 

********************

In a later blog I'll be listing non-British Library platforms and sites where you can find free-to-access British Library digitised maps. But in the meantime, I hope this keeps you busy.

Tom Harper  

21 April 2020

A View of the Open Road

Add comment

During the current pandemic, the next best thing to heading outdoors is (of course) to lose yourself in the printed landscapes of maps instead. In our London flat last weekend, I couldn’t help reaching for my Ordnance Survey Explorer sheets of the English Lakes and tracing the routes of Easter walks in years gone by.

Although busy depicting roundabouts and service stations, road maps and atlases also give us armchair explorers a flavour of the landscapes, the countries and the times we move through in our mind’s eye.

This example from the United States comes from a time when the American highway map was at its peak, when the automobile was an icon of progress, and state departments and commercial oil companies handed out road maps in their millions, free of charge.

A road map from 1967 entitled Official North Carolina Highway Map

The back of a road map from 1967 entitled Official North Carolina Highway Map

Front and back of North Carolina Official Highway Map, 1967. Held at State Archives of North Carolina

While useful to many, these maps were also the vehicles for carefully chosen images and text promoting industry, nature, social progress and Christian values. A Motorist’s Prayer on this sheet begins, ‘Our heavenly Father, we ask this day a particular blessing as we take the wheel of our car...’

A detail of the back of road map from 1967 entitled Official North Carolina Highway Map, showing a man working in an industrial control room to illustrate the labor force

Detail of North Carolina Official Highway Map, 1967

A similar agenda is found on the other side of the Iron Curtain, where a Soviet regional map from the same year focussed on places and monuments of revolutionary history, industrial mines (asbestos, brown coal, gypsum...), pine forests and swan nesting sites.

A detail from a Soviet map of Orenburg Oblast published in 1967

A detail of the list of symbols from a Soviet map of Orenburg Oblast published in 1967

Details from map of Orenburg Oblast, GUGK, 1967. BL Maps 35885.(63.)

Industrial prowess is emphasised again in the strong design on the cover of this regional atlas.

The cover of an Atlas of Orenburg Oblast published in 1969

Atlas of Orenburg Oblast, 1969. BL Maps 54.e.48.

But unlike in Britain or America, the Soviet general public had no large scale Ordnance Survey or US Geological Survey maps to turn to for raw topographical detail. These were restricted to the military. Even generalised maps were deliberately distorted during the 1970s to make them harder to use for navigational and targeting purposes, should they fall into the wrong hands.

After the break-up of the Soviet Union, restrictions on sophisticated military mapping were relaxed, and elements of larger scale maps made their way into practical road atlases, amongst other products, for the general public. The evolution of these maps from military specification to a hybrid form more closely resembling the typical road map can be traced over the following years.

Details of two Soviet/Russian topographic maps of Orenburg published in 1987 and 2003

Left: Detail from Topographic map of the world at scale 1:200 000 produced by the Soviet Army General Staff, Sheet NM 40-2, 1987. BL Maps Y.1575.

Right: Equivalent detail from Orenburg Oblast, one of the Road Atlases of Russia series published by Roskartografia, 2003

In the road atlas on the right new colouring distinguishes road types and routes, and makes them more prominent while rivers fade away, and symbols are added to indicate petrol stations, medical facilities, museums and places of interest.

Detail of a topographic map of Orenburg published in 1987 by the Soviet Army General Staff

Detail of Sheet NM 40-2, Soviet Army General Staff, 1987

Detail of a Russian road atlas map of Orenburg published in 2003

Equivalent detail from Orenburg Oblast Road Atlas, 2003

Precise bridge dimensions and maximum loads have been removed, though contours and direction of river flow remain, and the close mesh of the military grid has been replaced by a broad system of squares that correlates with the place name index at the back.

The cover of the Orenburg Road Atlas published in 2003

Cover of Orenburg Oblast Road Atlas, 2003

At last the landscape was revealed, and civilians could take to the open road better equipped.

And who knows, perhaps even now fingers are tracing imaginary routes from armchairs throughout Russia...

 

Nick Dykes

Further reading:

Denis Wood and John Fels, Designs on Signs/Myth and Meaning in Maps, in Cartographica vol 23 no 3, 1986, pp 54–103.

Zsolt G. Török, Russia and the Soviet Union, Fragmentation of, in The History of Cartography, vol 6, University of Chicago Press, 2015, pp 1376-1379.

Alexey V. Postnikov, Soviet Cartography, 1917-1991, in Cartography and Geographic Information Science vol 29(3), 2002, pp 243-260.

10 December 2018

Accuracy? Do me a favour!

Add comment

'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.”

Additional_MS_25691
Detail of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea from a sea chart of 1339.

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.

ROYYYYYYYYYY
The Trossachs, from William Roy's map of Scotland of between 1747 and 1755,

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.

CatawbaDeerskin_c12510-09
A map showing the position of the Indian tribes to the north-west of South Carolina from around 1719.

Anon. [Map showing the position of the Indian tribes to the north-west of South Carolina, 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

09 March 2017

Canada Through the Lens: mapping a collection

Add comment

Canadian_National_Exhibition_from_the_Air_(HS85-10-36083)_original.tif

Above: early Canadian aerial photography from the Colonial Copyright Collection, from Wikimedia Commons.

This summer, to mark Canada's 150th anniversary celebrations, the British Library will be displaying a selection of photographs from its Colonial Copyright Photograph Collection under the title, 'Canada Through the Lens'. The photographs contained in the collection were received from Canada between 1895 and 1924 under legal deposit regulations and in 2012 the Library began to digitise this collection in collaboration with Wikimedia Commons and the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

Back in 2012 I was the curator for Canadian collections and so I thought that this year I would merge my old work with my new responsibilities by making a map of the material digitised in 2012. The Picturing Canada Project, as this work was called, was a successful attempt to release a collection online under Public Domain licensing but browsing material in the list-based structure of Wikimedia Commons can be laborious. Given most people who access the collection want to find photographs of places that interest them (for personal or research reasons) a map seemed like a good entry point and so we've been tinkering around with using the collection metadata to display an interactive map. The first results can be seen here:

The map has been built by inputting metadata relating to the collection (largely derived from original copyright records and work done by P. B. O'Neill of Dalhousie University in the 1980s) into a spreadsheet and then adding to this the best geographical coordinate data we could find. This data was then uploaded to Google Fusion Tables, which can produce a map as one of its software tools. When it comes to the geo-data sometimes we have been lucky and been able to pin a location accurately. However, in many cases we have roughly developed a location by tracing place names in the photograph title, while in others we have had to pin the location of the photographer's studio or make a best guess as to an appropriate location. As a result, the geographical data you see above is a good start but very much a work in progress.

Klondikers_buying_miner's_licenses_at_Custom_House _Victoria _B_C _Feb_21 _1898_(HS85-10-9774)

Above: 'Buying miner's licenses in Victoria for the Klondike gold-rush', J. W. Jones (1898). An example of a photograph with place specific data in the title. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Each point on the map corresponds to a photographic record and clicking on the icon will provide users with metadata on the image as well as a link to the image on Wikimedia Commons. In some instances there is no link as there is more work to do uploading a few files to Commons or removing metadata for images that were not digitised (for an explanation as to why, see the Picturing Canada project page). The colouration attributed to the icons is an attempt to visually depict when photographs were produced and each colour means the following:

  • Yellow, 1895 - 1899
  • Green, 1900 - 1909
  • Red, 1910 - 1919
  • Blue, 1920 - 23 (end of active period of legislation)

'Canada Through the Lens' will open at the British Library on May 26th so we have plenty of time to polish the map and its content ahead of the main release. As part of this, if any of you spot problems or have suggestions for refinements feel free to email me at: philip[dot]hatfield[at]bl[dot]uk. 

[PJH]