4 July 2018

Old maps brought to life

Topografische kaart van Nederland uit 1745.
Topographic map of the Netherlands from 1745.

“Sometimes a map can be as long as seven metres. So we scan it in parts.” Marco van Egmond, map curator at the Department of Special Collections of Utrecht University Library tells us about the georeferencing project which has recently been completed.  “1.300 maps have been made geographically available via interactive search engines. All of them single maps published before 1850, not included in atlases. This project has brought us another step closer to making the collection of the University Library digitally available. Material can be searched more easily and can be reused. Moreover, scientists and students can make a better analysis of the maps. Old maps get a second life.

“I often take my students to the map room in the University Library.” Maarten Zeylmans van Emmichoven is a Geosciences lecturer and teaches in the field of GIS and Remote Sensing. “In my lectures I talk about about maps which have been digitised and how they are processed. The library holds a fantastic collection. When I visit the map room with my students, Marco always sets up an exhibition, a display about a particular theme. Students get to see the real maps.”

Topografische kaart van Nederland uit 1598.
The map 'Hollandiae comitatus Hollant grafschaftt' from 1598.

Zeylman’s students have participated in the georeferencing project. “They have added coordinates to old maps, which they enjoyed doing. It was just a very fun thing to do. Each map is very special. Old, rare. They noticed that the geometry of some old maps is of poor quality, but there are also maps showing an excellent geometry. Furthermore, students learned that georeferencing may be either very difficult or very easy.” Georeferencing is part of the curriculum of Geosciensces students. “People still perform field research.  They take a printed map along they can make notes on. On their return, they scan the map and next the map is georeferenced. This project fits in perfectly with these activities."

“The beauty of this kind of projects is that it brings the collection to life. I think it increases awareness, leading to a more active use of the maps in research and education."

Added value of georeferencing

“The added value of georeferencing? Maps are now included in a geographic interface. You see old maps in their right place. You can load the map into Google and then see: what has changed? That is very interesting. Everybody has access to Google, but there are other programs such as ArcGIS. We use that a lot. The last release makes it possible to load the GIS program into ArcGIS and then the map is simply put in the right position. Very user-friendly.”

“The information from a number of old river maps matches perfectly with Maarten Kleinhans’ research. These maps have once been made by land surveyors, so they are quite good according to present standards.”


How was it, how is it, how is it going to be

“By georeferencing maps you extend the history of a map. How was the situation back then, how is it now, what’s it going to be? We can go further back in time. For instance you can see how the course of a river has been changed by men, or how it has taken another course. Thousands of old maps are online, so the course of river can be studied clicking away behind your computer. Nevertheless, scientists and students study printed atlases or real maps in the map room of the University Library. Old maps can be viewed digitally. More recent maps, made after 1850, can rarely be consulted in a digital format. This has everything to do with copyright laws. The library does not own the rights of more recent maps”

Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing

To realise the georeferencing project money and manpower were needed.  Money was raised via the crowdfunding initiative Funding the Future of the Utrecht alumni community. In addition, students and alumni of the Faculty of Geosciences were taken on to participate in georeferencing. First the old maps were scanned by library staff,  digitally stored and next groups of volunteers added coordinates to the maps. Now old and current maps can be laid on top of each other, allowing a detailed comparison of old and current situations. And all this via an open, digitally available platform. In this way the files resulting from georeferencing are made freely available for reuse by the University Library.

Studenten in de kaartenzaal van de universiteitsbibliotheek

Take good care of the collection

“The map collection of Utrecht University Library deserves good taking care of. For instance, we have the entire collection of TNO and of the Geological Service. That is a very complete collection which is very well documented. Geological services were institutions set up by the colonizers, not by the colonized countries themselves. I think we have maps here which certain African countries don’t have. And even though you scan maps or atlases, you must still take good care of the original copies. The beauty of this kind of projects is that it brings the collection to life. I think it increases awareness, leading to a more active use of the maps in research and education. This use of the material, makes it easier to access. However, this is only a fraction of the entire digitized collection.”

Van Egmond estimates that there are around 50,000 copyright free maps in the collection which are suitable for georeferencing.

In July Maarten Zeylmans will teach the Summerschool course Hands-on GIS for Earth Scientists. Also then you can find him in the map room of Utrecht University Library with students from all over the world.

Topografische kaart van de provincie Utrecht uit 1628.
The map 'Ultraiectum' from 1628.