Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

3 posts categorized "Conservation"

19 April 2019

British Empire maps of Africa added online

Around the turn of the 20th century the British War Office in London maintained a library of original, mostly hand-drawn mapping that covered large parts of the world where detailed and reliable surveys were not otherwise available. The maps were gathered from a rich variety of sources including military expeditions, boundary commissions, explorers, travellers, missionaries and spies, and they were used by the War Office for making and revising official printed products.

The maps are now held at the British Library in the 'War Office Archive', and generous funding from Indigo Trust has allowed us to continue cataloguing, conserving and digitising portions relating to Africa, where the archive provides unique details of settlements, populations, communications and land-use immediately before and during the period of European settlement.

Most recently we have digitised maps relating to the former Transvaal Colony, including sheets made during the South African War, also called the Second Boer War. 'Survey of Position Held by Enemy near Belfast. August 1900’ was made in the days following the Battle of Bergendal, the last pitched battle and a turning point in the war. The map is hand-drawn to a high standard, perhaps in anticipation of reproduction and publication, but this appears to be a unique copy.

A map showing the Position held by the enemy near Belfast, South Africa, in August 1900

Detail of 'Survey of Position Held by Enemy near Belfast. August 1900’ WOMAT/AFR/TRA/23

Gun emplacements and rifle pits are shown in red, alongside detailed contour work and rock drawings. Plans and profiles of enemy gun positions are provided around the sides of the map.

A picture of a gun emplacement in South Africa
An image of a gun emplacement

Details of WOMAT/AFR/TRA/23

In a less finished style, but with no less detail, is the following ‘Road Sketch’ from 1906, which shows a 200-mile stretch of the boundary between present-day South Africa and Mozambique. It too is made with an eye on military logistics, and provides details of terrain and road conditions, availability of food and water, and the characteristics and numbers of personnel at forts along the route. All of which provides rich data for present-day researchers.

A map showing the road from Komati Poort To Messangire

Detail of ‘Road Sketch From Komati Poort To Messangire’ WOMAT/AFR/TRA/47

There are now a total of 1,840 map images from the archive available to view on the BL website or to download from Wikimedia, covering large parts of eastern and southern Africa. The catalogue records and images can also be browsed from the geographical search page, shown below.

An image of the geographical search page for the War Office Archive maps


Nick Dykes

Project Manager, Modern Maps


02 November 2016

Map exhibition build photographs

One exhibition comes down, another one goes up. No matter how many exhibitions I see go into the British Library's PACCAR gallery, I never cease to be amazed by the utter transformation of the space. Our Shakespeare in 10 Acts exhibition which closed in September was a complex and winding space with 10 separate areas for each of the acts. Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line will be entirely different. We're going for the open and expansive look with a handful of open zones. It will be an 'immersive' experience.

Here are some photographs taken over the course of the past few weeks, giving you just enough of a hint to want to see the finished article from Friday.


The view into the gallery a week ago


Still a fair amount to do



A few maps starting to appear on walls


 One of our more unusual exhibits is installed


12 July 2013

Have trolley, will travel

I'm delighted to introduce this guest blog post from British Library conservator Ann Tomalak. Maps, like all works on paper, are potentially fragile, but larger-than A4 size and unprotected by the covers of a book, sheet maps are particularly vulnerable to wear and quite literally tear.  The map doctor writes:

Many people take maps on their travels, but a new initiative at the British Library has conservators travelling to bring their skills to our map collections. The aim is to streamline the process of running repairs, so as to get items back into use as quickly as possible.

We have been trialling a conservation trolley, a self-contained work station filled with tools and all the most commonly used repair materials. This can be moved to any part of the building where it is needed (but generally close to collection storage areas) and remain there for a few days or weeks. The Map Library was chosen as the first area that might benefit from the new system.

Image 1
Above: The board folder containing this rare map on parchment [Herman Moll's two-sheet world map of 1707] had become damaged, putting the item at risk. The conservator was able to re-use the existing hinge to secure the map in a new folder. 

Traditionally, damaged items are withdrawn from use. They must be assessed and an estimate prepared, then they are ordered and delivered to the conservation studios in the British Library Centre for Conservation and slotted into the work-flow. While there, they are thoroughly checked. The damage is photographed and information about each item and its treatment is recorded on a database. This is all very well for material that needs intensive treatment, but many items have low level damage, merely wear and tear. A simple repair might take just 15 minutes, but the ancillary tasks take several hours. Meanwhile, non-priority items get pushed further down the list and can be unavailable for many months.
Image 2
[This map is a little bit poorly - TH]

With the new system, the conservator uses a kind of triage on damaged items. A few will not need treatment and can be returned to use immediately. This category includes recently acquired items that just need a condition check, but also damage that can safely be left, as it will not get worse.  For example, parchment sometimes starts to cockle if it is taken too quickly from a cool storage area to the warmer Reading Room, but we know it will relax again naturally back in the store.

Image 3
Previously used maps may be bundled together in storage before coming to the British Library.  This results in crumpling, folds and tears.

The second category consists of items that either need lengthy and intensive conservation, or their treatment requires specialist equipment only available in the conservation studios.  These can quickly be separated out and will eventually be delivered to the Centrer for Conservation in the old way.

Image 4
A small nick at the edge can quickly develop into a longer tear right across the image which is much more difficult to repair invisibly, so it is important to catch minor damage quickly.

This leaves the items that can be repaired at the conservation trolley. For maps, the majority have tears, damaged corners, are splitting along folds or are crumpled and creased. If they were to continue in use, this damage would get worse and eventually require major conservation, but if we catch it early a quick and simple repair is sufficient. All interventions are recorded, but on a very simple spread-sheet that simply identifies the item, says what was done to it and what materials were used. Rather than describe the damage in detail, we photograph it. Additional notes can be added if necessary.

Image 5
Oversized material that has been bound often has distinctive edge damage where it has protruded from the text block.

The trial in the Maps Library went very well. Over a fortnight, 43 items were completed and a number more set aside for full conservation. We were able to identify further tools and materials to carry on the trolley; some, such as task lighting, that will be useful in all collection areas and some specific to maps, like oversized boards and blotting paper for pressing large items, plus a stash of heavier weights. By actually testing the system we discovered minor problems (the amount of drying space needed when several items are being worked on each day, and the nearest place to wash paste brushes) and are well on our way to refinements that will make the conservator’s task easier. 

Image 6
Fit for use again: the corner of this map [Philip Lea's map of Kent, dated 1730] had been torn off and was reattached at the conservation trolley.

The trolley has now moved on, first to Western Manuscripts and then to Print History to continue the trial. But one thing is for sure. The conservation trolley will be back in the Map Library!

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