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

09 March 2017

Canada Through the Lens: mapping a collection

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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]

26 February 2017

20th Century Maps: Everything Changes, Nothing Changes

Maps improved in their technological power during the 20th century, and as a result became better able to meet the requirements of their time. Some of them even came to symbolise key themes of the age such as dynamism and modernity.

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Harry Beck, 'Sketch for the London Underground map], 1931. Victoria and Albert Museum, E.814-1979.

Probably the best map to capture this sense of speed, efficiency, new-ness, was the new London Underground map of 1933 by Harry Beck. Here was a map which broke dramatically with the conventions of the old, dispensing scale and representational accuracy in order to be useful to its users quickly in the new rapid bustling urban environment (there’s also more than a passing similarity between the underground map and Mondrian’s noisy, bustling ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’ of 1943).

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Grazioso Benincasa, [Portolan chart of the North-West coast of Europe], 1473. Egerton MS 2855.

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Beck’s Underground map may the pin-up map for the brave new 20th century world, but in one crucial respect it drew on a trait of mapping which is as old as maps themselves: simplification. In straightening and regularising and de-cluttering the underground lines, the map is no different to early ‘portolan’ sea charts, sailing maps which possibly originated during the 13th century, and which use the same technique of simplifying, straightening and de-cluttering coastline features in order to be easier for their users to use.

And that’s one of the lessons we can take from maps: that history is a sequence of changes and continuities.

23 February 2017

Maps and women

“This is all very manly, isn’t it” a visitor said to me a while ago as I was showing a group around our current exhibition Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. And the visitor (whose own work explores identity and gender in society) was right – there is something apparently rather masculine about cartography, particularly 200 maps in a big room all shouting for attention, forcibly promoting their world-views.

Mapping has historically been portrayed a male pursuit, like many professions, but particularly given the active and even aggressive role of maps in empire and militarism (maps are never ‘submissive’, an outdated perception of femininity). So too the use of maps has been seen as a male pursuit. Note the lack of women on the covers of Ordnance Survey maps, except where they are passengers. Note the cliché of the terrible reluctance of many men to ask for directions when lost.

Over the past few decades we have  begun to question established norms (as we have many established world views) and gender is one of the many key narratives of the 20th century. Van den Hoonaard’s ‘Map Worlds: a history of women in cartography’ (2013) was jst one of a number of works to ‘recover [the involvement of women with map-making] from history’. Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line was curated specifically to engage with themes and aspects of history which have been hidden from sight, and this includes shining a retrospective light upon the role of women in cartography. Here are some of them. 

Mary Ann Rocque

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Anonymous (after Mary Ann Rocque), [A map showing part of the road from London to Luton Park], London, 1767. Add. MS74215

Mary Anne Rocque inherited a map business from her husband John Rocque, who died in 1762 (Laurence Worms has produced some important research on this role of female business people in the British map trade). Not simply content to maintain the business, she published new and significant maps such as ‘A set of plans and forts in North America’ in 1765. This watercolour map of part of the road from London to Luton, based closely on Rocque’s work, was produced for the earl of Bute in 1767.

Phyllis Pearsall

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Geographers’ Atlas of Greater London. London: Geographers A-Z Map Company, 1956. Maps 198.f.37. 

Pearsall is regarded as one of the most successful business people of the 20th century through her creation of the London A-Z (by the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company) in 1936. Compact and convenient maps of cities have a history which goes back centuries, but Pearsall’s was a marketing success in its clean, simple and efficient design and cover. It became the unofficial map of London which even Londoners were not ashamed to own.

Gertrude Williams

96b77f49-d920-4917-8229-5bc8a7ff09bc-1354x2040Otto Neurath & Gertrude Williams, 'Occupation of women by regions, 1931', from Women in work. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1945. W.P.8741/3.

Lady Gertrude Rosenblum Williams was an economist and social strategist whose research and writing impacted on the foundation and development of the Welfare State in the United Kingdom from the 1940s. Of Williams’ books of the ‘New Democracy’ series, the 1945 publication on ‘Women in Work’ contains some of the most distinctive infographic maps to make statistics more intelligible. These infographics were by Otto Neurath’s Isotype Institute. ‘The occupation of women by regions’ using 1931 census data is one of the best. Williams’ social mapping sits in a tradition begun by Booth and Webb, and continued into the 21st century by, for example, Bethan Thomas and Danny Dorling.

 Marie Tharp

6a00d8341c464853ef01b8d23592df970cHeinrich Berann, Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp, Atlantic ocean floor. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Magazine, June 1968. Maps CC.5.b.42.

Marie Tharp was a geologist and mapmaker whose research and observations were instrumental in the production of detailed maps of the ocean floor, produced for the US Navy after World War II. These maps, particularly the ocean floor maps illustrated by Heinrich Berann which were published in National Geographic magazine in 1968 did much to popularise the theory of continental drift. Because she was a woman Tharp was not permitted to go on research vessels.

These are just some of the female contributions to cartography which you can see in our map exhibition. It is particularly fitting that the British Library should be able to contribute to the recovering of this part of the 20th century experience. After all, the first Head of Maps of the British Library as it was created out of the British Museum in 1973 was Dr Helen Wallis OBE. Wallis was a key figure in the emerging discipline of the history of cartography throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and instrumental in bringing the British national map collection to the attention of the world. 'That monstrous regiment of women’, was how a (female) former employee remembers the Map Library being referred to during that time, but thanks to Maps we can continue to balance the scales.