14 July 2021
I’m delighted that 1,277 maps from our War Office Archive have been added to the Georeferencer in the last few days. These military intelligence maps relate to Eastern Africa, particularly modern-day Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Somaliland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and parts of South Africa. The British Library has catalogued, conserved and digitised the archive with generous funding from the Indigo Trust. You can find out more about the maps here https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/war-office-archive.
Detail of Umkamba Prov. part of (Central), Capt. Bertram Dickson, 1901. BL Maps WOMAT/AFR/BEA/54
The maps are already accessible on the web through several different channels. A Google Map index shows the central point of each map sheet and provides links to catalogue records and high-resolution digital images, viewable on Digitised Manuscripts or available for download from Wikimedia Commons. You can also download text that has been extracted from the images using computer vision. However, we hope that the rich geospatial data provided by volunteers on the Georeferencer platform will open up these maps to new forms of research and discovery.
In terms of the Georeferencer project as a whole we now have 63902 maps georeferenced on the platform which is an amazing achievement. An exciting new project, ‘Machines Reading Maps’ [https://www.turing.ac.uk/research/research-projects/machines-reading-maps] based at the Alan Turing Institute is also now using our georeferenced Goad fire insurance maps. Thanks to all those who contributed to their georeferencing, they have been used by several research projects and are an invaluable resource.
26 October 2020
A guest post by Chantelle Richardson, Librarian of the National Library of Jamaica and former Chevening British Library Fellow
Throughout my year at the British Library, I was privy to seeing some amazing resources. One of my projects focused on Non-book Bibliographic materials from Latin America and the Caribbean before 1950. Compiling the list of materials for this project allowed me to view various items related to the Caribbean region. However, my interest piqued when I would see items related to Jamaica, especially maps.
My fascination with maps began when I started working in the Special collections branch at the National Library of Jamaica. Historical maps provide a vivid depiction of what the past looked like. They can be useful for a multiplicity of information needs. Land allocation is one aspect that is of particular interest. Maps can be used to see how communities were structured then and how they are now.
I found that one of the best ways to browse the cartographic holdings at the BL was by using the printed catalogues available in the Maps Reading Room. Though most items can be found on Explore the BL (the online catalogue) I found the printed catalogues useful in helping me to navigate the vast collections. It is therefore good to know that a complete set of metadata relating to one of the Library’s treasure collections, the King’s Topographical Collection (K.Top.) will soon be made available on the BL Shared Research Repository – an ideal tool for browsing which is similar to how you would navigate the printed catalogues.
Interestingly, I found that the BL has maps and other special collection items such as prints like those present in the NLJ collections. The K.Top. Collection is one of the best examples of this.
James Robertson, MAP of the County Of Cornwall, In The Island Of Jamaica. London, 1804. Maps K.Top.123.52.b.11.
The K.Top. Collection features many maps from the Caribbean in general. There are several maps related to Jamaica directly and indirectly. The names of cartographers like James Robertson, Edward Slaney and Nicolaes Visscher popped out as all have holdings in the NLJ collections.
Nicolaes Visscher. Insulae Americanae in Oceano Septentrionali ac Regiones Adiacentes. Amsterdam, 1775. Maps K. Top.123.5.
The coloured Jamaica maps in the K.Top. Collection are particularly interesting. Aside from being appealing to the eye, they give information on the parishes, towns, and counties. Researchers wanting to analyze the division of land in Jamaica from when there were 22 parishes to its 14 now can use the coloured maps as reference.
Another interesting thing about the K.Top. Collection is that it not only has maps related to Jamaica but prints as well. Prints such as The Maroons in Ambush on the Dromilly Estate in the Parish of Trelawney, Jamaica are a good source for researchers who are interested in indigenous groups and resistance.
J. Mérigot, The MAROONS in AMBUSH on the DROMILLY ESTATE in the PARISH of TRELAWNEY, JAMAICA. London, Robert Cribb, 1801. Maps K.Top.123.59.
There are also prints by lithographers like George Robertson and Louis Belanger. These prints are an added benefit of the K.Top. Collection as they help to contextualize what was happening in some of the places identified on the maps. For example, a MAP of the COUNTY of Middlesex, IN THE ISLAND of JAMAICA has an explanation section which I found somewhat depicted in one of Robertson prints A VIEW IN THE ISLAND OF JAMAICA.
James Simpson, MAP of the COUNTY of Middlessex, IN THE ISLAND of JAMAICA. London, 1763. Maps K.Top.123.51.c.2.tab.
Researchers wanting to find a visual representation of rivers, harbours, estates, and aspects of plantation life during the 18th century may find these items useful.
J.B. Harley stated that he saw cartographical mapping of the British Empire as a language of power and not protest. The same could be said of some of the Jamaican maps. To ignore the imperial association of how the maps became a part of the K.Top. Collection would not be an objective stance. Like many of the other Caribbean maps featured in the collection, most of the Jamaican maps were acquired throughout the 16th and 19th century when Britain ruled much of the Caribbean. These maps can be used in research that explores themes like the role of early maps in Britain’s imperialist past, area studies, postcolonial studies, land ownership and geomapping.
With the COVID-19 global pandemic remote access is becoming a major focus for libraries worldwide. Researchers who use both BL and NLJ resources have increased in the demand for digital materials. It was good to see that all the maps relating to Jamaica and the Caribbean from the K.Top. Collection have been digitized and are now openly available worldwide through the BL Explore and Flickr platform.
In the coming months, I plan to input links from the K.Top. maps collection into the NLJ maps catalogue so users will have access to the digitized copies of these resources from our holdings. Having used these resources, I recommend it to all users for academic as well as personal research.
28 May 2020
After recently completing a pilot course in Computing for Information Professionals at Birkbeck University, I have just released a new dataset containing the text extracted from almost 2,000 colonial-era maps and documents covering eastern Africa. The resource is available now from the Shared Research Repository, and provides access to thousands of names of historical settlements and regions, descriptions of historical land use, topography and vegetation, and notes of ethnographic, military or administrative context.
The resource consists of a downloadable spreadsheet, which lets users browse or search the extracted text. I hope it will be of particular use in identifying and locating place names in eastern Africa during the colonial period, for which there is a gap in current research resources. I’m also hopeful it will facilitate the contribution of these maps to studies of the history of the environment.
The text was harvested from maps and documents that are held at the British Library in the War Office Archive, a collection of over 14,000 mostly unique, hand-drawn items originally kept by the British War Office between c.1880 and 1940 and used to compile printed maps over large parts of the world. They came from a variety of sources, including military surveyors, explorers, missionaries and spies. Generous funding from Indigo Trust recently allowed us to digitise those items relating to eastern Africa.
Automated extraction of the text was carried out using the Google Vision API, which found a total of 633,451 pieces of ‘text’ on the maps. However, after the majority of erroneous results or results that were not useful had been cleaned out, the final dataset was reduced to 317,133 transcriptions. These are sorted alphabetically and displayed in an Excel spreadsheet, shown in the following screenshot:
The order in which the pieces of text were transcribed from the maps was retained in the second column of the spreadsheet so that, if the spreadsheet is re-ordered by that column, each word can also be seen in its original context – for example, the text in the screenshot below can be read from top to bottom (‘The topography has been supplied...’):
The spreadsheet enables a user to identify the image in which any piece of text appears, and links to a geographical search interface for the archive, shown below, which in turn provides links to high-res versions of the images and their catalogue records on the BL website. The combination of these resources lets users identify each piece of text and see it in context on the face of the map.
The maps are drawn in a wide variety of different hands, and the text often overlaps or is written over background features, making automated transcription tricky. Some errors do remain - for example, where individual characters have been incorrectly transcribed within words, though the words themselves should still be identifiable. In addition, not all words appearing on the maps were captured.
The resource came about after I was fortunate enough to join a cohort of colleagues from the British Library and the National Archives attending the pilot postgraduate course at Birkbeck. After speed-learning Python and SQL coding languages in the first term, I then focussed on the development of a software tool that enlists the Google Vision API to auto-transcribe text found on maps. Once made, I set it to work harvesting words found on the eastern Africa maps.
I am very grateful to BL Digital Curator Nora McGregor, who set up and coordinated the initial pilot (now launching this autumn as an Applied Data Science Postgraduate Certificate), to the Institute of Coding, who funded it, and to BL managers for allocating study time during work. This project would also not have been possible without Indigo Trust, whose generous funding to conserve, catalogue and digitise War Office maps over the last five years has made them accessible to the world online, and enabled further initiatives such as this.
28 April 2020
In a previous blog I described the best free-to-access digitised British Library maps available on the Library’s own site. But there are more. Lots more!
Where we’ve worked with other institutions, organisations and individuals on digitisation, we’ve been pleased for those institutions to host the resulting content on their own sites. Often, the maps we’ve provided form a subset of a wider collection drawn from a range of other sources. So it isn’t just about the spirit of collaboration, but the enormous research benefits to be drawn from a broader and more integrated picture.
In the fullness of time you can expect to see this content also hosted on the BL's Universal Viewer. For now, here are some of the riches and where to find them.
Wikimedia Commons Collections
There’s a ton of British Library content on Wikimedia Commons which is great because of the open access nature of the site and its clear usage terms. Maps are included in a range of categories, including the Off the Map videogame competition and Images Online (the British Library’s commercial imaging site). But the main category, labelled maps collections, contains 28,000 images. Three main ones are
Ordnance Surveyor drawings - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Ordnance_Survey_Drawings
These 321 maps are some of the earliest works by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain, which was formally established in 1791 to map southern England in response to the threat of invasion from France. The phrase ‘scope-creep’ is something of an understatement when applied to the OS, whose work continues to the present day. These large ‘fair drawings’ are the maps produced by the earliest Ordnance Surveyors of parts of England and Wales from the 1790s to the 1840s, and it’s from these that the one inch to the mile ‘Old Series’ printed maps were derived. The maps were received in 1958. For close, local work, there’s really nothing better than these for the period.
Goad fire insurance maps - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Goad_fire_insurance_maps_from_the_British_Library
Charles Goad’s maps are incredible windows into Britain’s urban past – stupidly detailed late-19th and early 20th century maps of various towns produced in order to assist the calculating of fire insurance risk. To do this, the maps included not only tell us the shapes and forms of buildings, but what they were made of, and who was using them and for what. Over 2,500 here for you to savour. Goad mapped other world cities including a large number of Canadian towns.
War Office Archive - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:War_Office_Archive_%E2%80%93_East_Africa
Thanks to the Indigo Trust, over 1800 East Africa maps and materials from the wider WOA have been digitised and placed here for your study and enjoyment. They’re also georeferenced. Hurrah!
Maps of Qatar and the Middle East
Through the Library’s partnership with the Qatar National Library, over 1300 maps of the area, drawn mostly from the India Office Records, have been catalogued and uploaded onto their digital library portal.
American Revolutionary War Maps
In collaboration with the Norman Leventhal Map and Education Center at Boston Public Library, 377 maps of North America and the West Indies from the American Revolutionary War Era were digitised and placed on the Center’s educational site. Ten other partners including the Library of Congress also contributed material. The British Library's contribution includes maps from the King’s Topographical Collection and Royal United Services Institute, which itself contains maps from the collection of Jeffery Amherst (1717-1797), commander-in-chief of British forces during the Seven Years’ War.
Japanese produced historic maps
We digitised all of our pre-1900 maps of Japanese origin thanks to a wonderful collaboration with Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto. And what a collection – over 300 maps drawn from the Map Collection, the Western Manuscripts Collection, and Asian and African Studies Collection. Some of these maps arrived from earlier private libraries including the Engelbert Kaempfer and Philipp Franz von Siebold Collections. Some of them are very big indeed. You can access these maps through the Ritsumeikan University MapWarper portal.
Maps of Singapore and South East Asia
The five-year project between the British Library and National Library of Singapore, generously funded by William and Judith Bollinger, enabled us to digitise and upload 300 maps onto the NLB Singapore’s web portal. These cover Singapore and its wider geographical context.
In 2013 the British Library Labs’ Mechanical Curator project placed 1 million British Library images onto Flickr. They are images drawn from books digitised as part of the Microsoft Books project, and include an enormous wodge of maps (‘wodge’ in this sense meaning tens of thousands of maps). See this individual album containing over 25,000 maps https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/albums/72157648036792880
These are the maps which are currently being Georeferenceed via the Library's Georeferencer tool http://britishlibrary.georeferencer.com/start
The Roy map of Scotland
And finally, just one map, but a very large and important one. This is the fair copy of General William Roy’s (1726-1790) map of Scotland produced between 1747 and 1755. The map is a landmark in British mapping for applying military surveying methods to a very large area, and is regarded as the precursor to the Ordnance Survey. It’s also highly regarded artistically, since it includes the hand of celebrated watercolour artist Paul Sandby (1731-1809). The map is part of the Kings Topographical Collection, having formed part of the collection of the Duke of Cumberland.
We’re delighted for the National Library of Scotland to host this map on their website, given its signal national importance. And they do a very good job of it too, with a superb interface and numerous layers, including a 3D one.
I hope you find something here to interest and inspire you – and I’d be very glad to learn of any comments or questions you have, either by commenting here or on Twitter at @BLMaps.
23 September 2019
Over the centuries the Levant (or the Middle East as we now know it) has received a significant amount of cartographic attention and has featured on countless maps. This isn’t particularly surprising considering the region’s role in trade between Europe and Asia but what makes it rather special is the diversity of cartographical output. Maps of the Levant come in many different styles. As expected, they demonstrate the evolution of geographical knowledge, which gradually improved over time, and there is also an additional aspect of the region’s mapping, very different in content and style of depiction, reflecting the interest in this part of the world from the ancient history and biblical studies points of view. These different approaches were very often merged into one image resulting in an interesting fusion of contemporary and historical geography.
The first printed map of the region falls into the category of the ancient geography and comes from the edition of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia published in Bologna in 1477.
The first printed map of the Levant. TABVLA 18 from Ptolemaei cosmographaie, Bologna. 1477. (C.3.d.5)
The depiction is basic and the engraving technique rather crude but let’s not forget that this is the earliest printed atlas issued with engraved maps. It is assumed that the atlas was prepared in haste and the engraver was pressed for time to complete the plates before competitors in Rome had a chance to publish their edition of the Ptolemy’s work.
Detail from TABVLA 18 showing the Eastern Mediterranean with exaggerated Cyprus (C.3.d.5)
The Ptolemy’s Cosmographia appeared in numerous editions but even within this genre the geographical representation varied greatly depending on the sources used in the compilation and mapmaker’s interpretation. For example, Sylvanus in his edition of the work (published in 1511) decided to incorporate the contemporary geographical information directly into the Ptolemaic maps in order to demonstrate the geographical discoveries. This method did not find followers and Waldseemüller in his editorial note to the 1513 edition criticised the idea stating that rather than enlighten the readers it confuses them.
Qvarta Asiae Tabvla from the Sylvanus’ edition of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia published in Venice in 1511 (Maps C.1.d.7.)
The second category of the cartographical depiction of the Levant comprises maps produced to illustrate the biblical geography. A prime example is A map shewing ye situation of Paradice and ye country inhabited by ye Patriarchs design’d for the better understanding ye sacred history from the Sacred geography, contained in six maps published in 1716 by Senex and Taylor.
A map shewing ye situation of Paradice and ye country inhabited by ye Patriarchs design’d for the better understanding ye sacred history (118.e.7.)
The map not only shows the location of the terrestrial Paradise, but also includes the position of Sodom and Gomorrah within the Dead Sea waters, the Noah’s Arc as built on the top of Mount Arrat, as well as multiple references to the biblical texts. Alessandro Scaffi’s extended research on the Maps of Paradise was published in his fantastic book well worth reading if interested in the subject.
Detail from A map shewing ye situation of Paradice ... (118.e.7.)
The thematic maps of the Levant in conjunction with the multitude of those produced to express the contemporary geographical knowledge provide a complete picture of the vivid interest the region received from mapmakers through the centuries.
A New Map of Turkey in Asia by M. D'Anville published in 1794 in London by Laurie and Whittle. Maps * 46970.(2.)
Turkey in Asia, drawn from the most respectable authorities by Robert Wilkinson published in 1794 in A General Atlas, being a Collection of Maps of the World and Quarters. (Maps C.10.a.29.)
29 January 2018
For many of the thousands of British men and women who ventured abroad during the eighteenth century, travelling to Italy was the highlight of the trip. To some it was even considered an essential activity for any aspiring socialite or person of culture. In the words of Dr Samuel Johnson, “A man who hath not been in Italy, is always conscious of an inferiority, from his not having seen what it is expected a man should see”.
Sir Bourchier Wrey (1714/15–1784), who travelled around Europe in the mid-1730s – including a sojourn in Italy – came up with a novel way of commemorating his time there: he decided to commission a map of Rome.
The map in question is John Rocque’s A plan of Rome… (see fig. 1) published in 1750 – of which there is a fine copy in King George III’s Topographical Collection.
Fig. 1: John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), British Library Maps K.Top.81.22.
We can tell that Wrey was involved in the production as there is a decorative cartouche dedicating the map to him in the bottom-right corner (see fig. 2).
Fig. 2: Detail of John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), showing the decorative cartouche that dedicates the map to Sir Bou[r]chier Wrey.
With an eye for sales, Rocque catered his map to potential grand tourists: he has highlighted certain buildings and sites that had architectural or antiquarian interest with deep scoring, so they stand out in black (see figs. 3 and 4).
Fig. 3: Detail of John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), showing the title and the area around St Peter’s Basilica.
Fig. 4: Detail of John Rocque, A Plan of Rome, (London, 1750), showing the urban centre of Rome.
This innovation would have made the map immediately more useful and alluring to travellers. These highlighted areas, which comprise the numbered locations of the index, are far more easily identifiable than if they simply were marked with numbers.
Rocque was one of London’s most successful mapmakers of the eighteenth century and this plan of Rome followed in the wake of his other city maps, such as those of Berlin (1745), London and Westminster (1746), and Paris (1748).
On another level, however, this map speaks of the immense personal and societal impact of the Grand Tour.
Wrey had returned from travelling over a decade prior to the date of publication. This interval demonstrates that the effects of Wrey’s experiences abroad did not conclude when he first set foot back on English soil. Rather, his Grand Tour still had powerful enough meaning for him to want to assist Rocque in publishing this map.
But aside from seeing this map as a personal memento for Wrey, we can also recognise its wider social value. With this map Wrey was making a carefully constructed public expression of his own identity. By patronising a map of Rome, the traditional pinnacle of the Grand Tour, Wrey was showing off both his cultural and historical sensibilities and his appreciation of the science of mapping.
Fig. 5: Sir Bourchier Wrey’s portrait for the Society of Dilettanti, by George Knapton, 1744, showing him dishing up some punch from a classicised bowl inscribed with Horace’s phrase “Dulce est Desipere in Loco” – “It is delightful to play the fool occasionally”. (Wikimedia Commons, Source/Photographer: J. Paul Getty Trust)
What’s more, Wrey was an active member of the Society of Dilettanti, whose objective was to promote knowledge of classical antiquity (and the members certainly had fun whilst doing so – see fig. 5). Finally, as this map marks an important update on the cartography of Rome for a British audience, we can detect Wrey’s intention to make Rome more accessible to grand tourists.
What better way is there to remember your own travels than to put your name on the map?
Jeremy is undertaking an AHRC collaborative PhD with the British Library and Royal Holloway University of London on Maps and the Italian Grand Tour.
 Boswell, James, Life of Johnson (London: Oxford University Press, 1965): 742.
 Some biographical information on Sir Bourchier Wrey, sixth baronet, can be found at: Handley, Stuart, ‘Wrey, Sir Bourchier, fourth baronet (c.1653–1696)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008) [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/30025, accessed 4 Jan 2018].
 Maps K.Top.81.22.
 For more information of Rocque’s life and work see Varley, John, ‘John Rocque. Engraver, Surveyor, Cartographer and Map-Seller’, Imago Mundi, 5 (1948), 83-91.
 For an overview of the activity and achievements of the Society, see Redford, Bruce, Dilettanti: The Antic and the Antique in Eighteenth-Century England, (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2008).
Maps and views blog recent posts
- Adding 1,277 East African maps to Georeferencer
- Maps of Jamaica in the K.Top. Collection
- Automated text extraction from colonial-era maps of eastern Africa
- Another big list of where to find British Library maps online
- Diverse cartography of the Levant
- The Ultimate Tourist Souvenir: John Rocque’s 1750 Map of Rome