Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians


Our earliest map appears on a coin made in the Roman Empire and our latest appears as pixels on a computer screen. In between we have the most complete set of Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain, the grand collection of an 18th-century king, secret maps made by the Soviet army as well as the British government, and a book that stands taller than the average person. Read more

21 June 2016

War Office Archive goes live in Nairobi


Nicholas Dykes with John Paul Karijo, Community Manager at i-Hub

In 2014 the British Library received funding from the Indigo Trust to catalogue, conserve and digitise almost 600 colonial-era military intelligence maps of the former British East Africa, part of a rich historical resource held at the library in the so-called War Office Archive. The project was completed last year with a modest underspend, which was put towards promotion and marketing of the project in East Africa itself. As the cataloguer and co-ordinator of the project, I recently travelled to Nairobi to give demonstrations of the new online resource and to deliver talks about the archive’s rich potential for environmentalists and for researchers of African, colonial and personal history.

I spoke first at the British Institute in Eastern Africa, where the talk was recorded. The maps’ potential for use in academic study was well received by the audience. Joost Fontein, Director of the Institute, expressed an interest in discovering what the archive can teach us about the nature of colonial administration, and the role of mapping within it. Philip Winter, Director of the Rift Valley Institute, was keen to learn what the archive reveals of the history behind East Africa’s international boundaries, and how the archive might inform debate around this controversial subject today. And one doctoral student, who has located the temporary settlements of nomadic tribes from tell-tale patterns of vegetation growth seen on aerial photographs and maps from the 1960’s, was keen to use the War Office maps as a new source of data relating to an earlier period.


Detail of shelfmark WOMAT/AFR/BEA/54

In the afternoon I travelled across town to i-Hub and a well-attended event there called PizzaFriday. i-Hub is an innovative and youthful space where Nairobi’s tech community meet to work together and share ideas. Current members’ ages range from 17 to 34. I was welcomed by Community Manager John Paul Karijo, whose work has included founding a not-for-profit startup that simplifies the process of enrolment in Kenyan graduate schools to an app on a mobile phone, bypassing the bureaucratic burden of paper forms and official stamps. I also met Jessica Musila, Executive Director of ‘Mzalendo, Eye on Kenyan Parliament’, a website that provides statistics and data relating to political transparency in Kenya, and Douglas Namale, a founder member of Map Kibera, a community mapping project in one of Nairobi’s notorious slum districts. Another young coder told me about his car-share app, which he hopes will help to reduce Nairobi’s chronic traffic congestion.

The community at i-Hub believed that the archive held great potential for local use and development - thoughts included integration of the maps into a historical storytelling platform, to include historical photographs of the region currently published on a Twitter feed, together with the archives of local Missionary Societies that might give a different perspective on the region from that of the British War Office - excellent ideas that prove the value of harnessing local knowledge.

I also spoke to Sophia Murage, who works in Kenya for a global digital mapping firm. She believes there will be strong local interest in geo-rectifying the War Office maps so that they can be overlaid onto modern map imagery for ease of comparison, and she added that there was also scope for the maps to be vectorised, enabling them to be fully discovered and manipulated with the latest GIS software.

These exciting possibilities perfectly fulfil the British Library and Indigo Trust’s intentions behind making the maps available for download from Wikimedia free of charge, even for commercial purposes.

But perhaps the most unconventional idea was put forward by the organiser of a charitable off-road jeep safari, who suggested the possibility of an event in which participants navigate across the landscape using only a War Office map from the 1890’s! Funds raised from the event would go towards local initiatives.

Nicholas Dykes

June 2016

23 May 2016

Murder and Madness in the Castle: Macbeth’s Inverness


Above: Inverness Castle before the Jacobite uprisings [BL: Maps K.Top 50.10.a]

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth Inverness Castle is the site of Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan, allowing Macbeth to usurp the crown. It is also where Macbeth’s descent into madness plays out, with many key scenes happening within the confines of the castle. As with so many of Shakespeare’s productions the events of Macbeth are, very loosely, based on fact, with historical characters used to drive the dramatic narrative. Much about the actual history of these individuals is different from how Shakespeare’s drama plays out, for example, Duncan was murdered at a much younger age than Shakespeare portrays, but the characters and locations can still be fixed, to some extent, geographically and historically.

Despite this, and somewhat unfortunately, no record remains of Inverness Castle as it was in the time of King Duncan. The fort that existed at this time was razed to the ground in the 11th century and has since been replaced with various structures. That which currently stands in Inverness was built in the nineteenth century in order to replace the castle seen above, constructed in the sixteenth century and destroyed during the Jacobite uprisings. As a result, this is the best source for Inverness Castle’s historic look that exists and, while it may not be the right castle to house the events of Macbeth, a little embellishment never hurt the Bard and so games designers should be able to indulge a little too.

Inverness Castle and the narrative of Macbeth provide rich pickings for video games. Castle based cerebral horrors, filled with mind games and hallucinations, perhaps like the Gamecube’s, Eternal Darkness, are one way a Macbeth inspired game could play out. Indeed, there are so many fantasy-RPG elements to the story of Macbeth, including witchcraft, other-worldly sieges and more, that a journey of character upgrades and branching choices would also fit well (although for the sake of longevity it might be worth making sure the player has to kill King Duncan…). Of course, for those of you who are more excited by the platform genre, the view of Inverness Castle above would also lend itself to a Castlevania or Ghosts n’ Goblins style adventure. The choice is yours.

For some further inspiration you can also look to the Hamlet inspired game, Elsinore, which currently forms part of the Library's Shakespeare in Ten Acts exhibition. Do remember though, if you are planning on entering the competition it’s time to get cracking with implementing your designs. The deadline for submission is rapidly approaching, with 1st July only just over a month away. Good luck!


27 April 2016

Less of a Random Mapper: a new feature for Georeferencer

Tropical Australia

Above: a map of tropical Australia, from the 'Australia and New Zealand' subset.

Those of you who have used the British Library's Georeferencer in the past will know that it has an interesting quirk; you don't get to choose the map you are working on. This was added to the design for good reason, to make sure even the difficult maps in the selection get worked on, but it also has disadvantages. You see, the random pool is quite small, around 30, and doesn't change unless a map is georeferenced; this means that, with a challenging set of maps like those currently in the program, the same unpopular maps can just keep circling around until someone bites the bullet and gets that map pinned down. All of which means, it can become a bit of a drag for even the most devoted Georeferencers.

Map of Kendale (Kendal)

Above: 'A map of Kendale' from the 'North West' subset.

Thankfully, some of our wonderful volunteers have worked on creating a solution to this problem. A new page on Wiki Commons now lists all the maps requiring georeferencing by their rough location (i.e. a country) or some other subject marker (such as the map being about 'anthropology'). Next to each subject line is a link saying 'to georef', click on this and your route to selecting material to work on in the Georeferencer begins. All you need do from here is  click on a map on the Flickr page you have been directed to and on the map’s page click the ‘View this map on the BL Georeferencer service’ link. You are now at the Georeferencer interface for this map, simply log in and continue the georeferencing process as normal.

Georeferencer subject page (Flickr)

Above: a view of the 'Anthropology and Ethnology' subset page.

Using this process you can continue to find, select and georeference maps of your choosing, working your way through an entire list or flitting from one subject to the next. The choice is yours. Since I last wrote we've progressed up to 27% of the maps from the current batch georeferenced, that's a whopping 13,434 maps! Plus, all this data is now being ingested into the Library's catalogues and should be available on the public interface soon.

As I always say when I close these posts, if you've not started working on the georeferencer yet please do come and have a go. Now is a better time than ever to start.