The Topography of Envy

by Wilko Graf von Hardenberg

Last week, enthusiastic praise of the new US Geological Survey historic topographic maps viewer topoView has made the rounds of the Internet. The response to this new service has been so overwhelming that, as of today, the servers are down for maintenance because of the excess in requests. But, technical glitches and excessive enthusiasm notwithstanding, this is a great service, that offers access—for free and through an incredibly user-friendly map-based interface—to an incredible vault of high-quality cartographic resources in a variety of (actually usable) formats.

Video (c) 2015 USGS, on YouTube.

It is definitely a great asset for anybody interested in historical cartography, landscape transformation, and, more in general, nature in place, space and time. Being the map geek I am, I almost drooled over my keyboard. But, then, as happens way too often when it comes to sources available to the ‘armchair historian’, the full realization dawned on me: as neat as it is to have a look at a map of Madison in 1880, it isn’t much useful when your geographical specialization is western Europe.

Roy Rosenzweig’s digital world of scarcity and abundance often looks rather like a desert when you are an environmental historian of, say, Italy. Just to stay focused on maps, as far as I know nothing comparable to the new USGS viewer is available for any major European country. The Italian Istituto Geografico Militare only offers access to historic maps through a very clunky interface based on drop-down menus. And when you at last reach them, they are not geo-referenced, low quality images. To have, possibly, actually usable images you’d have to send an email and inquire about the sale’s arrangements. And the catalogue doesn’t even include a whole set of topographic maps. A few years ago I also participated in a group reflecting about the possibility to crowdsource the digitization of the Italian topographic series of 1936, which stalled because of our inability to figure out all the related copyright issues.

A historian of France, Germany, or Austria would apparently encounter similar difficulties in getting hold of decent topographic maps. The German Bundesamt für Kartographie und Geodäsie only offers reprints of selected maps. The private Landkartenarchiv project doesn’t give users the possibility to download the maps, which makes it less useful for actual research. The Historical Maps of the Habsburg Empire, while it has to be commended for its wonderful interface and the possibility to view the maps in 3D on Google Earth, also doesn’t offer users the possibility to download and reuse the maps. On the site of the French Institut Géographique National I, frankly, got lost: I was able to see that historical maps should be available for free for the purpose of research and teaching, but I still wonder how to get hold of them. My best bet is that you’d have to order a CD.

Obviously the wonderful David Rumsey Map Collection offers some solace to the global map geek or the historian interested in landscape transformation, but it is far from a complete archive of global topographies.

The envy for the wonderful work done by the USGS should however not remain a mere feeling of discontent, but rather become a motivation to act: there is much to be done to improve the availability of topographic maps outside the US. As I already suggested to do for libraries, archives, and museums we should pressure our national cartographic agencies to follow the example of the USGS and make their historical data freely available for research and study. Or, we can go back to the study table, clarify all copyright issues, and crowdsource the topography of our past.

What online repositories do you use to gather cartographic sources? Do you know of more complete repositories of topographic maps outside the US? Can you think of other ways to improve the quality of data available online? Let us know on Twitter or in a comment below!

Image: A screenshot of  topoView’s homepage

This article has 4 comments

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  3. Wilko von Hardenberg Reply

    And now I come across this awesome resource offered by the National Library of Scotland:

    Well done! Now I have multiple resources of which to be envious and case studies to talk about to friendly librarian and cartographers in continental Europe.

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