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

19 November 2014

These maps were made for walking

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One of the most important modern purposes of maps is apparently helping people to walk from one place to another. It is probably the Ordnance Survey’s fault, putting pictures of ramblers on the front covers of their 1930s tourist maps, almost like a serving suggestion on the front of a cook book. ‘Here’s what you can use these maps for’.

Ellis Martin, cover illustration for Ordnance Survey "One Inch" Map, c.1930

It seems incredible to us now, but it was only at this time that maps really started to assume this particular use. In the 1920s and 1930s more people had more leisure time (and paid holidays), of course there wasn’t a big war to be fighting, and there were more leisure aids such as maps to assist them. The Rambler’s Association was formed in 1935.

50 years later, the whole experience of walking with a map was commemorated by the artist Richard Long in a piece of post-modern art called ‘Hundred Mile Walk’. He tried to capture his experience of a walk by using photographs, words, and the map.

Richard Long, 'Hundred Mile Walk', 1970-1. Mixed media (Tate).

It is an incredibly perceptive piece because it reflects upon the limitations of using words and images to adequately convey our experiences. It also makes us think about the reasons why we should wish to capture such experiences in the first place.

In the 1970s more people were watching television than walking around. Peoples’ experience of nature was increasingly via other media. The Ordnance Surveyor Landranger map had become as appropriate on the gallery wall in the 1970s as in the rambler’s hand in the 1920s.

A History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps is published by the British Library

13 November 2014

Lines in the Ice: maps and the history of exploration

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The history of maps and the history of exploration used to be one and the same. In the mid 19th century, when the first national map libraries and geographical societies were created and old maps began to be looked at and collected more systematically, their purpose was to illustrate the apparently ever improving knowledge of the geography of the world thanks to the intrepid explorers of the past.

There are many people who continue to hold on to this interpretation of maps, and that’s fine. There was a point in the past where European knowledge of the Arctic, for example, was worse than it is now, and we can claim today to know more about it than we ever have, even to the point of being able to map the Arctic sea-bed geology.

The problem with it is that it simplifies things and gives the impression of an irrepressible march towards a state of perfect knowledge. Notions of progress and determinism are more problematic today. We move backwards, sideways, at various paces in different circumstances. At various stages in their 16th century quest for a Northwest Passage, explorers such as Martin Frobisher and John Davis headed down dead ends and in wrong directions. Henry Hudson wasn’t looking for his eponymous bay when he stumbled into it. The path towards discovery was never a smooth one. In the Arctic, the very path changes with the ebb and flow of the ice.

The idea of a progressively more perfect march of maps also makes the rather large assumption that mapmakers were absolutely always cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die doing their best to tell the truth (as they saw it) in their maps. We can see evidence to the contrary in two cartographic treasures of the Tudor quest for the Northwest Passage.


George Best, [World Map], from 'A true discourse of the late voyages of discoverie ... under M. Frobisher', London: Henry Bynnyman, 1578. British Library G.6527.


The first is a map included in the description of Martin Frobisher’s voyage to the Arctic, published in 1578  to generate publicity in further journeys there to mine sparkly but worthless iron pyrite brought back from Canada (used to make roads around Dartford). If the world map is anything to be believed, Frobisher really was a dunce for missing the vast, gaping wide passage to the Indies. Exaggerated on the map, it was intended to give the impression to would-be backers that the next mission could not possibly fail!

Thorne 1576

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

Another map, produced in 1527 but published later in 1576, shows a completely different Arctic. There is no passage to the Indies, just the impenetrable bulk of North America. No way through there, then. How can two contemporary maps be so different? Because maps lie, and lie for a reason. Robert Thorne’s map was produced for the Muscovy Company, who wanted to direct resources and impetus to the Indies in the opposite direction, via a Northeast Passage over modern-day Russia.

The path to map perfection is strewn with false capes, dead ends, and more than a few icebergs.

Lines in the Ice: seeking the Northwest Passage , a free exhibition at the British Library, opens tomorrow (Friday). Hat and scarf recommended. 

04 November 2014

Maps Tag-a-thon: it’s online

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Online participation in the Maps Tag-a-thon, launched 31 October with an event here at the Library, is open!  We invite remote enthusiasts to get involved in the tagging so that maps can be identified and then georeferenced so as to offer full geo-functionality (public domain!). The aim to is to find every map from amongst the million images.

   BL Maps tagathon2

Nearly 33% of the books have been reviewed, with over 6,000 maps found, since Friday - that's only five days! If you can join us in this amazing effort, have a look at the instructions on Wikimedia Commons.

A report on the event will come soon, but I wanted to flag up this opportunity. Thanks to all the help from the British Library Digital Research Team, OpenStreetMap and Wikimedia Commons!