THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians

Introduction

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

24 April 2015

Maps lie in a new online course

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At first maps were only thought of as representations of the places and the things they showed.

But in the 1980s (thanks in part to Jorge Luis Borges' tatty old lifesize cloth map) postmodernist historians began to see more power in them, and they became understood not as surrogates but as the prime reality of the places they were supposed to be showing. Given that one can't see an entire country very easily (apart from from space), it is easy to see how maps can become not just virtual, but actual realities to those who look at them.

From this point it is just a short leap to the position that maps - truthful, believable maps - are being used to persuade, hoodwink and indoctrinate. And so we come to the British Library, the University of Nottingham and FutureLearn's new and FREE  online course entitled 'Propaganda and Ideology in everyday life.' Designed to explore how propaganda interacts with us on a daily basis, in positive and negative ways, the course uses content and ideas from our 'Propaganda: Power and Persuasion' exhibition, and maps from our more recent 'Lines in the Ice: seeking the Northwest Passage'. 

The maps include a Russian 'Atlas of the Arctic', a powerful high-end and symbolic cartogrpahic product, but maps don't just function in the corridors of wealth and power. Maps for schools,  including this Russian one from 1903, persuaded schoolchildren, by means of  beautiful colourful decoration, that Russia had lots of food and produce. It was in fact in the middle of a famine, but if the map shows it, it must be true. Right?

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Наглядная карта Европейской Россiи. Составлена М.И. Томасикомъ. Дополнена и издана кружкомъ учителей подъ редакцией В.В. Урусова. M. I . Tomasik, Warsaw, 1903. British Library Maps Roll 537. 

The British Library contains one of the vastest and most powerful map archives the world has ever seen. Millions of virtual (or are they actual?) worlds are contained in our vaults. But I'm not the only person surrounded by maps. You are too. What is great about this course is that it encourages its students to notice and collect maps in everyday life. Maps are all around us, and their shapes and symbolism works powerfully upon us- especially powerfully, since we don't really notice it happening.

If you take the course (which starts on 11 May) have your eyes opened to propaganda in your everyday life. It will be especially potent during the General Election campaign. Use the underground / metro / subway and you will see far more maps down there than just the tube map. Look around you!

 

 

13 April 2015

Lines in the Ice: top five highlights

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As we enter the final week of the British Library's free exhibition Lines in the ice: seeking the Northwest Passage, here are my top five (unashamedly map-heavy) highlights of what has been a memorable and eventful five month residency. 

1. Robert Thorne's world map from 1582.

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

You probably won’t see another one of these exhibited in your lifetime, one of the earliest maps to have been printed in England, with only two in existence today, a clever bit of publicity by the Muscovy company which aimed to convince that the North West Passage didn't exist. Judging from the following 250 years of mostly fruitless searching, perhaps this point of view could have been given a bit more attention.   

2. Listening to icebergs

They are very big and very cold, and make a surprising racket. Curator Cheryl Tipp selected a number of sounds for the exhibition, which appear on sound points, and piped directly into the space. The angry polar bear was particularly eloquent.

 3. Explorer Ryan Nelson speaking at the BL

In an amazing coup, the British Library, the Eccles centre for American Studies and the Canadian High Commission hosted a talk by Ryan Harris, the man who discovered Sir John Franklin's ship Erebus on the sea bed. The event sold out almost before the ship was discovered!

  RHarris

4. An egg-shaped Arctic-biased world map on display for the first time

This rare and extraordinary educational 20th Century map (featured in this book) cleverly positions the Arctic (and Antarctic) centre stage using the 'Atlantis' projection. Its purpose was to focus minds on these zones in order to combat the vast problem of overpopulation. Oil was first extracted from within the Arctic Circle just a few years later.

  Amaps_37_b_55E.W. Fenton, The world we live in. Ipswich, 1958. British Library Maps 37.b.55.

5. Writer-in-residence Rob Sherman and his explorer Isaak Scinbank

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Top: Rob Sherman, bottom: Isaak Scinbank

Rob Sherman's work has been a stunning feature of the exhibition. His fictional explorer Isaak Scinbank, online and in his written journal (which is exhibited), attempted to discover what happened to Sir John Franklin. For me, Rob's work has helped explore how narratives and stories (and their meanings) develop and change over time, and how they can be invested in objects. This isn't the last you'll hear of Rob, I feel fairly certain... 

6. Charles II's map of the Arctic

G70112-95Moses Pitt,' A map of the North Pole and parts adjoining’, from The English Atlas , London, 1680. British Library Maps 1.TAB.16.  Untitled

Another map that has never before been exhibited is Moses Pitt's map of the Arctic, this copy owned by Charles II and acquired by the nation via the Topographical Collection of George III. 

The gold leaf on this map will be shimmering in public until Friday, so if you have the chance to visit the exhibition before then, please do. We are also holding a free seminar on Friday to celebrate the end of Rob Sherman's residency. Thank you to all who has visited Lines in the Ice since November, and thank you to everybody who helped make the exhibition a reality.

 

25 March 2015

Help! British Library needs 50,000+ maps georeferenced

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We have 50,000 maps online that we ask you - the public - to identify the geographical location of.   The BL Georeferencer release is now live at

http://www.bl.uk/maps/

Stockholm1
A plan of the city of Stockholm” published in 1802, overlaid on current Google mapping

Using the BL Georeferencer online application, you will be presented with a historic map from a 19th century book; by finding the location on a modern map or imagery alongside, the old map is “georeferenced”, and can be overlaid and interacted with in your browser (as above).

This is our largest release of maps yet, and will be a formidable task to complete, so any amount of help you can offer us will be gratefully received!