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 October 2016

Map Reading in the 20th Century

In the 20th century maps truly arrived at people’s fingertips. People learnt to read maps and to use them for a wide number of pursuits, especially (though not exclusively) finding their way around.

The Ordnance Survey’s National Map Reading Week initiative is motivated by a concern that people have stopped being able to read maps in this age of automatic mapping (where people are instead increasingly read by maps). There is a strong feeling that map-reading should be a basic life-skill. It is a feeling which arose during the early decades of the 20th century  as maps became important tools in education and way-finding, as peoples’ horizons widened to beyond their immediate vicinities, and as mobility, tourism and general ‘open-air culture’ became the norm for much of western society.


Henry James Deverson and Ronald Lampitt, The Map That Came to Life. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1948. Cup.1245.aa.53.   

One of the most celebrated 20th century children’s map reading guides is showcased in our forthcoming exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. Published in 1948, Ronald Lampitt and James Deverson’s The Map that Came to Life follows the story of John and Joanna who use an Ordnance Survey map to walk to town. As they pass over fields, past houses and along footpaths, their surroundings are compared with map adjacent on the same page. The fields turn into contoured blank spaces, houses become black cubes, footpaths dashed lines. Map literacy is acquired by the reader as they accompany the children on their virtual journey, matching map with reality.



In The Map that Came to Life the map is portrayed as an objective, precise and above all truthful mirror of nature. And this inherent trustworthiness enabled maps to become important features of the lives of successive generations of people.  Over time maps became able to serve people with growing ease, particularly thanks to automated mapping and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) from the 1990s.

But was this growing ease without cost? The implications of what commentators such as the historian J.B. Harley felt to be a relinquishing of people’s control over maps were voiced even before the end of the century. But the danger that society could forget how to use maps would have been widely viewed as collateral against the massive pace of positive technological change, if it was thought of at all.

Does the mapping impulse lie dormant but still active within society? National Map Reading Week may tell us whether we really want to find out.

14 October 2016

100 Aker Wood

An extremely famous 20th century map made its debut on this day 90 years ago. The illustrator E.H. Shepherd's map of Hundred Acre Wood was included on the endpapers of A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh. It would have been the first map many children would ever have seen, committing them to a life of cartographic wonder.


Shepherd's map is one of the most familiar fantasy maps of all time. But as Tim Bryars and I state in our History of the 20th Century in 100 Maps, each fantasy map contains an element of reality. 100 Acre Wood was inspired by Ashdown Forest in Sussex, near Milne's home and which Shepherd visited. It is possible to imagine that clump of trees at the centre of 100 Acre Wood  are still happily growing in that part of southern England.

See the first edition of this famous map in our forthcoming exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. 

Fantastic Maps, a celebration of maps in fiction, is an event taking place at the British Library on 10 November. 


12 October 2016

20th century maps: the globe

As the opening of our major exhibition Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line approaches, it is time to explain the background to the enigmatic globe that has begun appearing in posters and online. It is mysterious hemisphere with a more sinister message, drawn in pastel shades, with relief, place-names, and concentric rings emanating from the globe’s centre: Berlin.

G70125-32F.E. Manning, Target Berlin. Washington D.C., Army Information Service, 1943. Maps 197.h.1.  Publicdomain

The globe is taken from a United States army poster of 1943 drawn by F.E. Manning and called Target Berlin. It was published in October 1943 when the Allies with the US Air Force had begun a more concerted programme of bombing German cities. Another poster, this time with Tokyo at the centre, was produced shortly afterwards.


F.E. Manning, Target Tokyo. Washington D.C., Army Information Service, 1943. Maps 197.h.1.  Publicdomain

The poster includes a measuring rule which as explained can be used to measure the distance between any place shown on the map and the German capital. However, this was not intended as a navigational chart, but as a propaganda device. It placed Berlin at the centre of US soldiers and air crew minds and gave them confidence in the ruthless and scientific certainty of its destruction.

The Allied bombing of German cities, according to British Air Marshal Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris, aimed at ‘the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers, and the disruption of civilised life throughout Germany.‘ Bombing of civilians from both sides occurred throughout the war. They were some of the most controversial episodes of the 20th century, and many consider the line to have been drawn with them.

Maps and 20th Century: Drawing the Line opens on 4 November. Pre-book tickets here