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“Simply Superb”
By Liz Sagues

The British Library’s Map Library Melds Old and New Worlds

Fit for a King

The Map Library is, for all the splendid antiquity of its collections, a comparatively new entity, in name at least. It was christened as such only in 1973, when the British Library — of which it is a part — broke free from the British Museum. Lack of space in the British Museum building was one reason for the separation. Equally important was a desire to combine the British Museum Library with other library-related institutions in the United Kingdom to create a national library akin to those of many other countries.

Maps have always been present, however. When the British government grudgingly found the cash to establish the British Museum in 1753, around the core of the magnificent private cabinet of curiosities built up by the wealthy Irish-born physician Sir Hans Sloane, maps were there in profusion. Others, too, were in the libraries of Sir Robert Cotton and of the earls of Oxford, Robert and Edward Harley, which joined the Sloane material. This early collection ranged from administration and military maps to those of exploration and discovery.

Royal donations added to the museum’s cartographic holdings, most notably in 1828 with the arrival of King George III’s Topographical Collection, some fifty thousand atlases, maps, plans, and views gathered by the monarch and acknowledged as the finest geographical assortment of its day. The collection included William Roy’s survey of Scotland, prompted by the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, which incorporates the first detailed map of the Scottish-English border.

Those early contributions provided a number of the Map Library’s greatest treasures. Great in the most literal sense is the giant atlas containing the best Dutch maps of the world, compiled by Johannes Klencke of Amsterdam and given to Charles II — a keen patron of mapmakers — on the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Probably the largest atlas in the world, close to six feet high and three feet six inches wide, it is now displayed outside the Maps Reading Room. Great in importance to the history of British cartography, if of smaller dimension, is a proof copy of Christopher Saxton’s Atlas of England and Wales, published in 1579, annotated by William Cecil, Elizabeth I’s secretary and treasurer. And greatly fascinating for students of the history of North America are the 1664 “Duke’s Plan of New York,” the earliest English manuscript plan of the city, and the so-called “Red Line Map,” the 1775 edition of John Mitchell’s Map of the British and French Dominions in North America (1755), which was marked in Paris in 1782–1783 following the American Revolution, showing proposed boundary lines of the possessions of the United States and its neighbors.

Nine years after the arrival of King George III’s Topographical Collection, Antonio Panizzi, an assistant who was to become the principal librarian, asked for £1,000 to form a geographical collection that might be called “complete.” He also argued for the employment of a consultant specialist bookseller to advise on purchases. His words were heeded.

Modern researchers with an interest in North American cartography have good reason to thank Panizzi, for one consultant employed through the middle years of the nineteenth century was Vermont-based Henry Stevens. Largely thanks to Stevens’s influence, the Map Library’s Americana rivals its material on the British colonies. One of the only two known copies of Diego Gutiérrez’s 1562 map of the New World, the first wall map of America, owes its presence in the collection to the Map Library’s early interest in trans-Atlantic cartography.

Hugely important material from elsewhere in the world also arrived during the mid-1800s, including the Beudeker Atlas, a twenty-four-volume collection of seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century Dutch maps and prints, and one of the few surviving copies of the 1491 engraved map of north and central Europe attributed to Cardinal Nicolas of Cusa. As the years have passed, more and more has been added: the unique copy of the 1506 world map of Giovanni Mateo Contarini, the first printed map to show America; the only known copy of the nine-sheet world map of Giacomo di Gastaldi (circa 1561); the earliest known Chinese terrestrial globe, by Manual Dias and Nicolò Longobardi (1623); the first English lunar globe, by John Russell (1797); a remarkable collection of plans of London put together in the nineteenth century by Frederick Crace, a member of the family responsible for decorating Buckingham Palace; and the original early-nineteenth-century manuscript drawings from the Ordnance Survey, the greater part of the first systematic survey of England and Wales and the foundation of the OS mapping system, of which the Map Library holds the world’s largest archive.

However, the Map Library is anything but pompous in its collecting policy. Maps are everywhere, points out Barber, extracting from his pocket a tiny coin incorporating one (his own, he quickly emphasizes). And if he and his colleagues are spotted sitting around a card table, dice in hand, the wrong conclusions must not be drawn. They’re simply engaged in a little practical research with one of the geographic board games newly acquired from Waddington, of (British) Monopoly fame.

Waddington first approached the Map Library with an offer of company-made World War II escape-and-evasion maps, printed on silk or mulberry paper, which could be folded and tucked into a pack of playing cards or Monopoly money. These were fascinating enough and gratefully accepted. But was there an associated archive? The paperwork that accompanied the maps was even more illuminating, richly echoing the fictional world of 007 agent James Bond in the details of where the maps were to be collected by real agents and how they were ingeniously dispatched to enemy-held territory. There are letters exchanged between the British Secret Service and Waddington’s management relating to the types and numbers of maps available, the difficulties of producing them in wartime conditions, and problems met with in using them. Because secrecy was essential, much of the correspondence is cryptic — for example, maps are generally referred to as “pictures.”

Contact made and enthusiasm shown, Waddington was happy to hand over more, such as early-nineteenth-century prototypes of those geographic board games, whose fictional maps illustrate tours through imaginary British colonies and voyages of outlandish discovery. They came complete with rules and educational annotations defining the then popular view of the world.

The new Maps Reading Room, with its large tables and, in the back, the enquiry and photographic orders desk.

Irene Rhoden/Courtesy of the British Library Map Library

State of the Art

There is no question that the British Library contains an unmatched cartographic collection, but how does the new Map Library measure up to its readers’ needs? Early in the British Museum’s history, specific physical provisions were made for those who wanted to consult its maps. In 1759, when the renowned Round Reading Room was opened, the trustees ordered a specially large table. Flip the calendar forward 240 years, and not only are there such tables in quantity, but they can be pushed together to allow the very largest material to be seen in its entirety.

That is one of the great features of the new map reading room at St. Pancras, according to Yolande Hodson, a researcher principally of OS and military maps whose current project is compiling a catalogue raisonné of the George III collection of military maps in the royal collection at Windsor. Never before, in decades of using the Map Library, had she been able to unroll and study a map twelve feet by eight feet while still leaving room for other readers to consult oversized and conventional material. “The physical environment is absolutely 100 percent, so much better than the old building,” she says. “It is light, airy, simply superb.”

Others share her enthusiasm. “This is the first time the Map Library has been in a purpose-prepared, purpose-designed environment where proper space is available to use the material. The reading room is, quite simply, excellent,” says another user, summing up architect Sir Colin St. John Wilson’s design.

As in the rest of the £550-million British Library building, the quality of fittings and furniture is stunning. Tall, white walls contrast with smooth, blond wood. There are specially designed leather chairs. The handrails are brass, softened with black leather inserts. The floors are marble, even in the lifts. Practical details are not ignored: sockets for laptops are plentiful; the Map Library has light tables for the first time and an area where natural light shafts down, allowing an accurate view of colors. Disabled users have full access and are provided with adjustable-height tables and individual sound-proofed carrels. A room is allocated to welcoming visiting groups without disturbance to the individual readers.

In front of the levels of reading rooms and offices, the entrance hall soars the full height of the building, and rising spectacularly through it is the glass tower holding the King’s Library, a regal setting for the finest volumes. Specially commissioned works of art enhance the interior public spaces and the sheltered courtyard that separates the British Library from the bustle of the world outside.

Much of the building is freely open to the public, with extensive galleries for permanent and temporary exhibitions, a self-service restaurant and cafe, and a comprehensive bookshop where, on the cartographical shelves, popular books such as the library’s own The Image of the World nudge scholarly tomes hard to find elsewhere. For the first time, the Map Library has its own permanent display space, where some of its finest possessions can be seen by all visitors.

Readers have their own relaxation area, including an open-air terrace with spectacular views across north London. To access the map reading room, a pass is necessary, usually issued quickly and without fuss upon the production of proof of identity and a brief explanation of the intended map research, which should involve more than the kind of material available in a general bookshop or library. “Admission staff, however, do realize that public libraries do not have decent map sections and that the British Library Map Library has to be a library of first as well as of last resort,” explains Barber.

The majestic entrance hall of the new British Library.

Irene Rhoden/Courtesy of the British Library Map Library

New Terrain

Once out of the marble-floored lift and into the quiet spaciousness of the reading room, the impact of modern technology is evident. The new CD-ROM catalogue opens many more research doors. (A review of the CD-ROM catalogue appears in this issue on page 56.) Barber demonstrates its effectiveness by searching for map listings of the south coast town where I live. Alongside the obvious material labeled “Chichester” come details of a map of the town published in Paris under the title “Selsey Bill,” the name of a minor neighboring location.

Soon, there will be almost a third more catalogue references, thanks to a ten-year project for the Map Library undertaken by retired civil servant Rodney Shirley, a world-respected cartobibliographer, who has described at least sixty thousand maps in atlases and books containing maps — references that previously were obscured by a single listing for each atlas or book.

But the computerized catalogue evokes some mixed reactions. Some readers warmly welcome the increased listings — Barber reckons they have at least trebled already, identifying maps and topographical views way beyond the scope of the old paper catalogues. But others struggle to master it despite the detailed instructions provided. Here, the expertise of the curatorial staff is greatly appreciated, in both their understanding of the ways of the computer system and their thorough knowledge of the collection. “World-renowned experts in antiquarian, manuscript, and modern mapping, unrivaled in the world,” says one reader of them.

The surroundings do help, argues another. “It strikes me as a place where people want to work, where people take pride in their surroundings,” says Jonathan Ditchburn, currently at work on a bibliography of British topographical prints in the aquatint medium. He reckons the final total will be close to thirty thousand, and King George III’s Topographical Collection is rich in examples.

Nick Dykes’s interest in the Map Library is literally more down-to-earth. His work for an environmental consulting company requires careful checking of potential development sites over the last hundred years to establish whether they are safe to build on or have been contaminated by the likes of chemical or arms factories. The incomparable Ordnance Survey archive is his main resource.

Splendid in conception and realization as the Map Library is, however, there are still concerns. While the very public, very articulate battles that raged between traditionalists and modernists over the new British Library are largely past, some readers do have hesitations. They argue that there is now a culture within the institution where centralized, commercially oriented management is displacing scholarship, and they fear for the future of the curatorial services they praise so highly and value so much. One, who understandably prefers anonymity, is blunt: “A wonderful facility is being strangled by a management who have no real understanding of what the Map Library is or does.” Maybe that is an extreme view, but enough voices are being raised that management should take note.

A less fundamental quibble is that waiting times have lengthened with the new centralized call-up system, which replaces the dedicated map team that used to deliver readers’ requests. But, on the other hand, for the first time items from the Map Library and maps and topographical material from the Department of Manuscripts — long separated, for historic reasons — can be consulted together. “Our ability to make material available has enormously increased,” emphasizes Barber. He points out, too, that much frequently consulted material is on open shelves, immediately to hand. Facsimiles are there as well, but originals will be produced for any reader needing to see them. Photocopying and photographic services allow reproduction of material for private research or commercial publication.

Map Library readers are now a more diverse bunch, observes Barber. He notes an increasing number of English-literature specialists, for example, who use cartographical material to put words in better context, and mentions a student preparing a doctoral thesis on apartheid who found the subtle reflection of the mentality of the pre-Mandela era in South African mapping invaluable. Academic researchers not normally based in London are encouraged by travel scholarships, while lawyers and investment analysts look for commercially valuable information and travelers to less-frequented destinations seek answers to practical questions.

But crucial as the improved facilities of the new Map Library are to these and the many other users, the investment of all those millions in the British Library building would have been a tragic waste had the collection suffered in what was most likely the biggest map move of all time. Not only was there no damage, a mere three-week interruption in access to the reading room, and the realization of just how far the collection now extends, but there was also concrete benefit. A unique opportunity was presented — and taken — to assess the need for restoration and repair.

As a result, a major program of conservation work is underway. Maps, globes, models, and more are greeting the new millennium in their new location in better shape than they left the old.

Liz Sagues is a freelance journalist who has written extensively on historical topics. As assistant editor of the “Ham & High,” a major weekly newspaper in North West London, she followed the development of the new British Library over many years.

Note: For higher resolution depictions of the maps and illustrations included in this article, and for additional material, please refer to the March/April 2000 issue of Mercator’s World, on sale at a <A HREF="">newstand</A> near you.

For more about the <A HREF="">British Library Map Library</A> visit their website.

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