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

10 August 2016

Hooked on Georeferencing

Georeference NY

Above: a map of Manhattan from the US subset.

A funny thing happened last week as I noticed that the Georeferencer project's current phase had stalled around the 32% mark. Having checked on the project progress bar for a few days I decided we had lost momentum on the project, perhaps due to it being the summer holidays, personal commitments, a frustration with some of the content, or any other number of other reasons. Deciding I could not encourage more use without 'practicing what you preach' and getting stuck into the current cache of maps, I sat down in my breaks - for the first time in too long - to work through a chunk of the project using the lists of maps 'to be georeferenced' held on Wikimedia Commons.

After working my way through a number of maps I noticed two things. First off, progress on the Georeferencer project has not stalled, instead the counter on the front page has mysteriously stopped working (if you go there now you will still see it needs fixing). Instead, if you go to the 'Participants' tab you will see a different picture, one that suggests that, far from stalling, the project is actually charging along. At the time of writing 24,508 maps have been georeferenced, around 42% of what is currently in the system. The second thing I noticed was that I was hooked. Again.

Pandora voyage

Above: the route of the Pandora, from the Arctic subset.

Yes, despite the fact that there is no emergency or need to inspire more work on the system I'm still finding spare time to do 'just one more', the cartographic equivalent of computer gaming's 'One More Turn' syndrome. Now that I'm hooked I thought I would share some maps I georeferenced that worked out particularly well; the New York one lines up very pleasingly (grid systems make georeferencing much easier) while the map of the voyage of the Pandora satisfies my enthusiasm for Arctic maps, but, as usual, I have enjoyed working on every map I've done in this batch. I should probably back off a little now - not least as I have to sit down and write some talks around my new book - but I suspect I'll be dropping back in for 'Just One More Map' on a regular basis.

Thanks go out, as always, to our volunteers who are working through this large volume of material. We are making great progress here at the Library adding the data produced to catalogue records for the sheet charts, atlases and printed books that contain these maps and each newly georeferenced map means more useful data can be added to the catalogue. For those of you working on the project, don't forget about our lists of maps to be georeferenced over at Wiki Commons, they really do make the project more enjoyable - as I suggested in a previous post. For anyone reading this who wants to get involved in the project for the first time you can find out how here.


03 August 2016

Magnificent Manuscripts Online: Pelagios

Portolano (Egerton MS 2855, f.8r).jpeg

Above: Portolan chart of the North-West coast of Europe, including all of France, the British Isles and Ireland, Grazioso Benincasa [1473, Egerton MS 2855, f.8r]. File at Wiki Commons.

Over the past few years the British Library has been working with the Pelagios project, making innovative use of historic manuscript maps. Meaning ‘of the sea’ the name Pelagios is used as the seas were the highways of the ancient world, much like the Web provides a highway for communication today. A web-based project that facilitates the online linking of data about ancients sites mentioned, for example, in texts, local histories or where archaeological remains have been found. The current phase of Pelagios (in which the Library was involved) will soon be drawing to a close as the next phase, 'Pelagios Commons', begins and runs to December 2017. The Library has contributed digitised materials to phase 3 of this project, predominantly in the form of mappae mundi, itineraries and portolan charts, and these have been digitally annotated to open up the enclosed geographical information to the Pelagios database.

Insularium Illustratum (Additional MS 15760, f.53v).jpeg

Above: A map of England, Northern France, Scotland and Wales from Insularium Illustratum, Henricus Martellus Germanus [1495, Additional MS 15760, f.53v]. File at Wiki Commons.

As you can see, the material provided to Pelagios is something of a treasure trove of manuscript views of the world and the project as a whole is composed of various wonderful resources detailed at Pelagios Commons. Now that our involvement with phase 3 of the Pelagios project is drawing to a close the Library is making the material it contributed to the project available on Wikimedia Commons and (soon) via The main root for material held on Commons can be found on the British Library Map Collections category page on Wikimedia Commons, which provides links to the various groups of British Library manuscript materials used in the Pelagios project (although I should note this is a general collections page - so you will not find Ordnance Survey Drawings in Pelagios!). 

File:General chart of the coasts of Europe, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the western coast of Africa south to Cape Negro.- Cornaro Atlas (Egerton MS 73, f.36r).jpeg

Above: General chart of the coasts of Europe, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean, and the western coast of Africa, Cornaro Atlas [1492, Egerton MS 73, f.36r]. File at Wiki Commons.

One health warning about these manuscripts, due to UK copyright law they are technically in copyright until 2039. However, given the age of the manuscripts and their place of production the Library believes it highly unlikely a public domain release will offend anyone; more information can be found here. Copyright notices aside, this is a fantastic resource which we hope you enjoy. If you do dive make sure you clear your diary and sit down with some food to see you through, it's a fascinating collection of material. If you want to know more about Pelagios generally - and perhaps join in - head over to their Commons site. Here you can access online resources that are being developed (using open data methods) to link and explore historical place, as well as participate in various community forums. You can also find more at the Digital Classicist Wiki.  


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