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40,000 early modern maps now freely available online

The British Library is making available 40,000 maps dating between 1500 and 1824, which will be freely available online for the first time. They are part of the Topographical Collection of King George III (K. Top), and included maps, atlases, architectural drawings, cartoons and watercolours.

The first batch of 18,000 images are now available for anyone to view online via the British Library’s digital Flickr Commons collection.

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The collection is a distinct part of the larger King’s Library which was presented to the Nation by George IV in 1823. As a collection of maps and views that was built during the formative period of the British Empire, it is an important resource for the study of how Britain viewed and interacted with the wider world during this period. The current project, to catalogue, conserve and digitise the K.Top, has taken over seven years.

“A new Map of the whole World, by H. Moll. [In hemispheres, on the stereographic projection]” – British Library shelfmark: Maps K.Top.4.25.
“This is a momentous and intriguing set of early maps and views which provides multiple windows into the world of previous centuries,” explains Tom Harper, Lead Curator of Antiquarian Mapping. “We’re pleased to have been able to make this outstanding collection available through cataloguing and digitisation and to enable aspects of Britain’s past to be more fully understood.”

Highlights of this collection include:

  • a hand-drawn map of New York City, presented to the future James II in 1664
  • The vast Kangxi Map of China of 1719 made by the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ripa
  • A set of drawings of Lucca by the Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto, circa 1742
  • James Cook’s large manuscript map of the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, 1763
  • Watercolours by noted 18th century artists such as Paul Sandby and Samuel Hieronymus Grimm
  • Views of parts of modern-day Ontario, Canada, drawn by the artist Elizabeth Simcoe in around 1792
  • The earliest comprehensive land-use map of London from 1800.
Sketch of Upper Canada by Elizabeth Simcoe, around 1795

The images have been added to Flickr by British Library Labs (BL Labs). BL Labs supports the experimentation and reuse of the Library’s data and digital collections in exciting and creative new ways through competitions, events, exhibitions, collaborative projects and annual public awards (the deadline for entry this year is 30 November 2020.)

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The maps will also be made available on the British Library’s ‘Georeferencer’, an interactive application that allows volunteers to turn maps into data by adding locations to digitised British Library collections, initiating innovative new forms of discovery and research.

A selection of essays illustrated by images from the K. Top collection are available on the Library’s Picturing Places web space.

“Providing online access to these images and metadata is an important milestone for digital research support at the British Library,” says Dr Mia Ridge, Digital Curator for Western Heritage Collections. “The collection lends itself to digital scholarship methods such as computer vision, machine learning and AI, crowdsourcing, and georeferencing. We’re also excited to learn more about innovative applications for new and emerging computational methods as researchers explore the collection.”

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Click here to access the Map Collection from Flickr

Top Image: Map of La Bastide de Virac from between 1600 and 1650 / British Library / Flickr

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