Every year, at about this time of year, gorgeous hardcover collections of maps start appearing in bookstores. The timing is not coincidental: map aficionados need gifts bought for them, after all. But there’s something about these books, usually assembled from a single library’s massive collection, that’s worth thinking about. The British Library, for example, has more than four million maps in its vaults—how does an author preparing a book based on that collection decide which of those maps to include? (Some maps will be no-brainers: they cannot not be included.) And less obviously, but more critically, how do you organize the book, if it has no specific theme or focus? If you’re going to put out a book that says, essentially, “look at all these maps we’ve got locked up here,” you have to decide on some kind of order.
There are several ways to do it: Treasures from the Map Room, Debbie Hall’s 2016 collection of maps from the Bodleian Library (reviewed here), organizes itself by subject, for example. Whereas the book under consideration here, Atlas: A World of Maps from the British Library (The British Library, 11 October), curated by the Library’s Tom Harper, organizes its many interesting and beautiful maps by continent. This is exactly the structure of a world atlas, and explains Harper’s choice of title. The chapters on each continent are bookended by chapters on the universe, world maps, seas and oceans, and fantasy worlds; and the continents are deliberately and pointedly arranged in alphabetical order, with Africa leading and Europe last.1
Helen Wallis was one of the leading figures in map librarianship who pioneered the study of cartography. She was the first woman to hold the position of Map Librarian, following on from her predecessor R.A. Skelton (1906-1970) in 1967. Over 19 years she made the British Library the centre for map studies through research, publications and exhibitions including the Cook bicentenary exhibition of 1968, the American War of Independence exhibition of 1975 and the Francis Drake exhibition of 1977.
A research fund for visiting scholars has also been set up in her name; details at the link.
This week the British Library launched an online collection of digitized “topographical materials” (i.e., views of and writings about places) called Picturing Places. More than 500 items—paintings, prints, drawings, texts and yes, maps—so far, sorted by theme and with dozens of accompanying articles.
Picturing Places demonstrates that topography involves far more than straightforward ‘pictorial evidence’ of what a place looked like in the past. We showcase some of the Library’s most treasured topographical materials, including Tudor views collected by Robert Cotton and maps and views owned by George III. But much of this material remains uncharted, and is being brought to wider attention for the first time. The first phase of Picturing Places features over 500 collection items, most never published before, and over 100 articles providing fresh perspectives and new ideas.
One of these digitized items is one of the Library’s crown jewels: the gigantic Klencke Atlas presented to Charles II in 1660, all of the pages of which can now be viewed online. How do you digitize an atlas that is 1.76 by 2.31 metres wide when open? Not with a flatbed scanner, you don’t. Here’s how:
The British Library has acquired nine engraved copper plates, used to print maps of India for the East India Company in the late 18th and early 19th century, from a scrap metal dealer. Another plate had been acquired in 1988 from a Norfolk farmer, who had intended to use it as a mudguard for his tractor. The plates were apparently diverted to the scrap metal trade during a move in 1860; how they managed to avoid being melted down for their copper in the intervening 150 years is a minor miracle. Daily Mail. [WMS]
Fantasy maps increased in number during the 20th century due to the rise of science fiction and fantasy writing, and the birth of television and video games.
Many of them are products of the wildest imaginations, and are immersive places of escapism. Yet all of them retain vestiges of the ‘real’ world in which they were created—whether because of a particular feature illustrated in it, the way in which it has been drawn, or even the ‘real-world’ contexts which inspired it.
Harper’s examples aren’t what someone well-versed in fantasy fiction would expect: they include Milne and Tolkien, but also Sleigh’s 1918 map of Fairyland (above), San Serriffe, and other maps of the unreal from outside genre fiction. (A reminder that fantasy map does not only mean map accompanying a secondary-world fantasy novel in the Tolkien tradition.)
As you’d expect from a major exhibition like this, a companion book is out this week from the British Library. It’s available from Amazon UK in both hardcover and paperback; those of us in North America will have to wait a bit until it turns up here.
Two World Wars. The moon landings. The digital revolution. This exhibition of extraordinary maps looks at the important role they played during the 20th century. It sheds new light on familiar events and spans conflicts, creativity, the ocean floor and even outer space.
It includes exhibits ranging from the first map of the Hundred Acre Wood to secret spy maps, via the New York Subway. And, as technology advances further than we ever imagined possible, it questions what it really means to have your every move mapped.
On New Year’s Eve The Arts Newspaper reported on the British Library’s efforts to digitize the 50,000 maps and plans that make up the King George III Topographical Collection. (George III was apparently quite the map collector, one not above choosing not to return maps he borrowed.) They’re about a quarter of the way through so far. The collection’s crown jewel, so to speak, is the ludicrously large (176 × 231 cm) Klencke Atlas.