Contours of the past

April 29, 2005

A project giving online access to maps of Britain dating back to the Industrial Revolution offers a powerful way to explore many subjects, says Tim Riley

Maps offer not only a sense of place but, when presented in historical sequence, an unparalleled sense of time. Delivered online, they could be a powerful tool for academics across a range of subjects.

A new resource, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee and delivered by Edina, the Edinburgh-based national data centre, does precisely this. It offers, for the first time, online access to historic maps covering Great Britain from the mid-1800s to the early 1990s.

For more than five years, the Digimap service has been providing online access to contemporary Ordnance Survey maps and geographic data. It is now a well-established educational resource in further and higher education, used by experts and laypeople. Less than a third of Digimap users are geographers, coming from subjects ranging from medicine to national vocational qualification hairdressing courses.

Edina designed Digimap to accommodate other map collections, so it was the ideal vehicle to provide online delivery of the new resource, called the Digimap Historic Map Service. Jisc funded its development and its availability to further and higher education.

The Historic Map Service was trialled by William Kilbride, assistant director of the Archaeology Data Service based at York University. He says its importance lies in the uncovering of historical developments that would otherwise remain hidden. “Early OS maps were created during the Industrial Revolution, so successive editions show radical transformations in the landscape that are relevant to geography, cultural heritage disciplines, economics and demography,” he says.

“The earliest maps describe the shape of our medieval cities, and successive ones show the impact of Victorian and 20th-century expansion. They show the extent of urban encroachment on rural landscapes, and the processes of change in population and the economy.” This provides a kind of “narrative” not only of the landscape itself but also of the “aesthetics of cartography”, he says.

The service offers digital scans of OS map sheets, numbering some 400,000 separate map images. This processing, carried out by the Landmark Information Group, means separate map sheets can be “joined” to provide seamless coverage where the original map images allow it. Zoom and pan functions help users to navigate, and up to four maps of the same location at different dates can be viewed side by side. This gives users immense flexibility in terms of online browsing, viewing, printing and downloading.

Liam Earney, Jisc collections manager and one of those responsible for making the resource available, says such functionality is characteristic of the online resources becoming available and making a significant impact in classrooms and libraries.

“Resources such as this are not only making the most of the available technology to deliver types of use that simply have not been possible up to now,” he says, “but are also opening up these resources to new groups of users in colleges and universities across the country.”

As examples of other resources having a similar impact, Earney cites Early English Books Online - which gives the full text of almost every book published in the English language between 1473 and 1700 - and the online census data collections, also available through Jisc agreements.

“Online collections such as these give people a new way of looking at resources, whether historic maps, the full text of out-of-print books, census data, images or moving pictures. The technology is making all this not only possible but more and more easily accessible,” he says.

Perhaps most exciting is the use of Historic Map Service in the classroom. Although the project team has envisaged the resource being used to study the changing landscape, contaminated land or the development of modern transport and communications networks, archaeological sites and so on, there will almost certainly be a wide range of less mainstream uses of the resource. These could include genealogical studies, the evaluation of past planning decisions and the examination of agricultural history through the study of field boundaries or changes in place names, to list just a few examples. New users will almost certainly discover other novel uses for themselves.

The Digimap Historic Map Service is set to have a big impact on how we explore both our historic and our geographic environment. As Kilbride says: “There is nowhere in Britain that cannot be better understood by analysis of historic maps, and no university or college that will not benefit from enhanced access to them.”

Tim Riley is manager of the Digimap Historic Map Project and a member of the Edina geo-support team.

The Digimap Historic Map Service is available to all staff and students within a subscribing higher or further education institution.

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