Crowdsourcing Old Maps Online

"The Hudson's Bay Territories and Vancouver's Island; with an exposition of the chartered rights, conduct and policy of the Hudson's Bay Corporation"

“The Hudson’s Bay Territories and Vancouver’s Island; with an exposition of the chartered rights, conduct and policy of the Hudson’s Bay Corporation”

A little under a year ago the British Library released over a million images on Flickr Commons “for anyone to use, remix and repurpose”. This huge collection of historical images was “plucked from the pages” of digitized 17th, 18th and 19th century books automatically using the “Mechanical Curator,” created by the British Library Labs project. The library hoped that people on the internet would help them sort through the images and cluster them into useful categories and that is exactly what has been happening. At this point volunteers have identified more than 3000 maps in amongst the million images: “Maps, found by the community from the Mechanical Curator Collection“. With these maps identified, the British Library then fed them into another of their crowdsourced projects, where members of the community used an online tool to georeference historical maps. If you find a number of points on a historical map and on a modern map, the computer can then “pin” the maps over a modern digital map or a Google Earth digital globe. Depending on the quality of the original surveying and cartography and the care taken by the georeferencers, some maps lineup better than others and most suffer from some level of distortion when flat maps are stretched over a digital globe. Even with these problems, it is a really powerful tool to see historical maps layered over modern maps. In recent months people have worked to georeference most of the 3000 maps, adding to the existing collection crowd georeferenced maps shared by the British Library in recent years.

All of these maps, and thousands more shared by other libraries around the world, including the massive David Rumsey collection, can now be found through the Old Maps Online Website. Because the maps have geographical information, you can search for old maps by simply zooming into a particular region of the world (the website automatically prioritizes local maps when you’re zoomed in close and regional, national and continental maps when you’re zoomed out). The right hand panel will show you a list of all the maps for that region and when you point your mouse over a map, the website shows you a rectangle of the area covered by this map. The coverage is strongest for Britain and the United States, but the website is open for other major archives and libraries to expand the number of maps for their country or region. Each library or digital collection have different restrictions of what you can do with the maps and frustratingly, not many of them allow you to download a high resolution version with the georeferenced information included. Some, the British Library included, do allow you to open the maps in Google Earth and most allow you to download a medium resolution copy for non commercial research and publications. Limitations aside, the Old Maps Online makes an unprecedented number of published and archival historical maps accessible to academic historians, students, local historians and genealogies. In the case of the British Library’s Flickr Commons collection, they’ve used innovative crowdsourcing to find, georeference and share thousands of maps they did not even know existed less than a year ago. This provides model to georeference the growing collections of digitized historical maps available online and creates really exciting possibilities for historical research and for people who just really enjoy exploring old maps.

For those interested in how historians will use the growing wealth of digitized historical maps, we’ve posted a recent public lecture by a leading historical geographer, Anne Kelly Knowles, called Vision in History. In this lecture, Knowles discusses her work on the early industrialization in the United States and on the Battle of Gettysburg, using a combination of historical maps and documents with useful geographic information.

6 thoughts on “Crowdsourcing Old Maps Online

  1. Jim,
    This is a good post, however, for teaching purposes I take issue with digital rights and permissions around many of these maps. Most university libraries extend academic and teaching rights to the user/individual downloading this material. I have not found a Canadian university that places historical Canadian maps online. If I have missed this website, I would like to know. Portals are great to identify maps, but it does not mean that the user can place these items in their visual presentations. For example, I have had difficulty identifying pre-1867 digital maps of Canada (with boundaries) without permission restrictions. If you or the readers have any recommendations on websites and historical Canadian maps, I would be interested.

  2. Nadine, since the British Library collected these images and then released them to the public, I believe that the maps drawn from that collection should be permissible for the kind of usage you describe. Jim, do I understand this correctly?

  3. Based on the terms, it does not appear that the images can be used in educational or research presentations. I really would like to know whether a Canadian university has taken the initiative to digitise their historical map collection and make it available online. Most national repositories will display online their collections, but will not allow digital users to manipulate their in-house terms on copyright.

  4. The British Library images, all 1million, are posted with no copyright restrictions, including the 3000 maps discussed in this post. There are many other map collections, like David Rumsey, that allow non-commercial use. Fair use law lets use use copyrighted materials in the classroom with some restrictions.

  5. Thank you for your clarifications, both of you. And thank you for informing us of such a great resource, Jim!

  6. This is fairly well travelled ground in Canada, as we’ve got fair dealing exceptions for educational use, clarified in court cases and the new 2012 Copyright Act which made it explicit for educational users.

    You can generally always use a “short excerpt” from a copyrighted work as a handout, in your slides (as long as it’s behind your institutional credentials, i.e. on an LMS), or in a course pack. (ref: We’ve got a good guide here at UW, either the last link or the flowchart here A “short excerpt” can be a map.

    There are lots of debates around fair dealing between content producers (generally those who don’t work within universities and rely on their income from writing) and students/consumers/professors, but the fair dealing exception is pretty liberal. Witness the rise of course kits cobbled together with short excerpts now provided at no cost to the student (and no royalty to producer, to be fair).

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