I’ve always held a fascination with maps. I must have been an odd child, age four or five, under the covers, flashlight in hand, looking over Rand McNally. The world traveler in me, I guess.

For historians, though, maps provide major cultural clues not only to the people that made them or published them, but also to the people that used them. Maps are littered with cultural imagery: the detritus of filtered translations, hierarchical power structures, a visual architecture of contemporary insights, biases, thought processes at the very moment of map making.[1] And here you thought they were just for finding your way.

Historians are not the only ones to use maps to help “find their way” into past peoples and their societies. The study of cartography is an interdisciplinary undertaking involving Art History, Political Science, Economics, Sociology, Anthropology, the History of Ideas, the History of Technology, the History of Science, and my favorite – Cultural History.

Recently, I came across one of the most helpful – if not visually stunning – websites that approaches the study of maps with the mindset of more is merrier. Staying true to an interdisciplinary approach, OldMapsOnline combines a significant number of collections into one easy-to-search portal. Two collections from England (the British Library’s Map Collection, and maps from an organization called “A Vision of Britain Through Time,” out of the University of Portsmouth), a collection from Scotland (the National Library of Scotland), a collection from Czech Republic (through the Moravian Library), as well as the United States (the David Rumsey collection at Stanford University), are searchable through this magnificent portal, bringing perhaps close to a million maps for viewing.

But wait, this exciting historical news gets better. Not only can you view the maps, zoom in on the maps, but you can sign up to manipulate the maps as well. Through a program called Luna Workspace, you can add maps, images, and more to craft presentations that you can then export to PowerPoint.

This site is addicting and thus time consuming. But as a research tool Old Maps Online is priceless, yet –miraculously, the site is free from charges. You can look forward to further blogs about this site as I discover new and interesting finds. In the meantime, I have provided a link to Old Maps Online from my home page’s “Blog Roll.” Happy viewing!!!


[1] Christian Jacob, “Toward a Cultural History of Cartography,” Imago Mundi, Vol. 48 (1996), 192.

Advertisements