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Where we used to live – new website of maps from the past launched

Joseph Churchman's 'Eagle Map of the United States,' 1833, courtesy of the David Rumsey Collection

The broadest single collection of historical maps from around the world is being made available online with the launch of a new web site.

The site, Old Maps Online described by its creators as ‘like Google for old maps,’ will act as a central repository to a vast collection of historical maps held by institutions across the globe. The free resource will provide a single entry point for academics and amateur historians alike and is the first time that access to such an extensive collection has been made available online.

The service, hosted by the University of Portsmouth, launches tomorrow with a collection of over 60,000 maps which will double by the end of the year. The site incorporates access to maps from some of the most diverse collections in the world including collections from the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, the Moravian Library in the Czech Republic and the prestigious David Rumsey Collection in California. The project, worth £180,000, has been funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC).
Project Director, the University’s Dr Humphrey Southall, said that the site offers easy access and search facilities to maps which were already online but almost impossible to find, providing insight into the way the world used to look.

“Our obsession with the past includes an innate curiosity about how the world around us looked, and the sheer global reach of this collection is what sets it apart and makes it unique. But historical records must be accessible in order to be useful. Having a single point of entry to a repository of this scale offers historians and the general public a gateway to some of the most fascinating images from history.”

The intention of the project is to recruit more collections from libraries worldwide, building up the site’s resources in order to become the largest collection of its kind. Other collections to be added later this year include those from Harvard University, the New York Public Library, the National Library of Wales, the Bodleian Library at Oxford and several major European libraries.

Adam Farquhar, Head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library, said: “The Old Maps Online project brings together our cartographic heritage digitally in one place. It supports both researchers and the wider public, aligning beautifully with the strategic goals of the British Library.”

Dr Southall is presenting the new resource on 29th February at The Gerald Aylmer Seminar, a one day conference for historians at Senate House London sponsored by the National Archives, the Royal Historical Society and the Institute of Historical Research.

Paola Marchionni, programme manager at JISC said: “Maps have great potential to engage not only professional historians but also students and the amateur public. But they have previously been difficult to access because you need so much detail about what you are looking for. By customising existing technology Old Maps Online makes it easy for everybody to find and compare maps through time in a highly visual way without the need for specialist knowledge. JISC is supporting a big step towards widening access to and use of these fascinating resources.”

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