Author Archives: michaelathanson

Maps are for history, not just for geography

This post was originally published on the Maps and Music blog. This concerns the ongoing project to digitise the Map and Music Room card catalogue (pictures of which, in situ in Duke Humfrey’s Library, illustrate this piece); records for the whole map collection should be available on SOLO by autumn this year.


Taissa Csaky writes:

When I was at university (quite a long time ago) one of my favourite things about ancient history was the tutor’s habit of starting each session by unrolling a large map on the floor. He rightly insisted that we couldn’t possibly understand Rome’s civil wars or the Greece’s war with Persia if we didn’t know where the cities, roads, mountains, rivers, islands, fleets and armies were.


Working on the project to digitize the Map Room’s card catalogue has shown me a different link between maps and history. I’m one of a small team editing the text of the new digital records. We compare text generated by OCR (optical character recognition) against scans of the original record cards. The editing process takes you through a lot of cards. Thousands in fact, as between us we need to edit over 200,000 by next spring. Records are allocated to editors in geographical batches, reflecting the order of cards in the current index. The records in my first set were for maps of Greece.

First impressions were that there was a bewildering variety of maps of Greece made by a bewildering number of map-makers and publishers… But a few thousand cards later a pattern started to emerge, with a loose correlation between the dates maps were produced and the types of maps. It was not just that the techniques and conventions of map-making were changing over time. There was also a definite link between the date of the map, the sort of person or organisation that made it, and why.

Here are some examples of the main types of map I noticed repeating.

Lots of eighteenth century maps retracing the voyages of a fictional Scythian, Anacharsis the Younger.


Nineteenth century maps of classical Greece:


Map 1

German military maps from the early years of the Second World War:

greece 2

Map 4

Map 5

British military maps from the later years of the Second World War:


Map 3

Map 2

Touring and tourist maps. These start appearing in the 1930s but there are many more from the 1960s and later.


Also from the 1960s, maps from the National Statistical Service of Greece:


And most recently, twentieth and twenty-first century walking maps produced by the Greek Alpine club:


To me the fact these types of maps come up over and over again tells a story about Greece and what made it interesting to map-makers and map-users. I read it like this…

In the eighteenth century Greece was something of a fantasy land to Europeans – more familiar in classical literature and contemporary fiction than reality. In the nineteenth century the serious study of ancient history began and classicists made maps to represent their understanding of past events. Then there is a lull in interest in Greece – or at least that’s what the collection suggests – until the twentieth century. Suddenly Greece becomes a real place of contemporary interest. During the Second World War, the German army drew up maps to plan the invasion of Greece, and the British military made maps to plan the counter-attack. In the 1960s the Mediterranean holiday industry exploded and tourists had maps to plan their assault on Greece. More recent maps from the Map Room collection are made by Greeks for Greeks – statistical maps to assist government planning or detailed walking club maps of the Peloponnesian mountains.


Looking at the catalogue this way can give you an insight into why people made maps, where they were going, and what they planned to do when they got there. It also makes editing several thousand cards a much more interesting process. You’re not just reading the words of a catalogue, and it’s not just a catalogue of cartography or geography. It’s history too.


WWII Ministry of Information maps

Bodleian’s Map Department has recently added a fascinating set of maps dating from the period of the Second World War to the collection. Produced mainly by the Ministry of Information (MOI) for propaganda and press purposes the maps are in black and white, measuring 25 by 20 cms and printed on glossy paper.


Each map is accompanied by an information slip, stating amongst other things title, purpose of use and department responsible for the production of the map.


The MOI was a department set up at the end of the First World War and then again at the start of the Second, and was responsible for press censorship and publicity both at home and abroad. An example of their work is the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ campaign.


As well as maps produced by the MOI the set also includes maps made by the Daily Mail and the Czechoslovakian Embassy, and maps with this design can be seen in newspaper reports from the time showing the progress of the war and key areas.


As well as the maps of Hong Kong, Japan and Rome featured here the set also includes maps of Japanese aggression in the Far East, Berlin, Rome, the Russian Front, pre-war European boundaries, Syrian and Iraqi pipelines and the Chinese Republic.


The maps can be ordered via Solo, and have the shelfmark B1 (1447).


First World War trench maps at the Bodleian Library

To mark the 95th Armistice Day we put on display a map from the Bodleian’s Trench Map collection of maps from the First World War. Within this collection, one of the most important in the map holdings for the library, there are a large number of detailed trench maps as well as more functional and administrative mapping used to plot, fight and plan hostilities during the war. All the maps are catalogued on SOLO. This map, ‘Second Army Area (East)…’ is less detailed then most of our trench maps but is one of the few in the collection with manuscript additions.

Trench map

Second Army Area (East): Sketch map showing supposed location of enemy forces 31st May1917’. C1 (3) [2551a]

The Northern Lights


While processing some maps recently map staff found, on a ‘Monthly Meteorlogical Chart of the North Atlantic Ocean’ for January 1920, this lovely description and drawing of the Aurora Borealis seen from onboard a ship sailing between London and Philadelphia.
The Aurora are caused by atoms and particles hitting the high altitude atmosphere, the particles coming from the Sun’s solar wind, and then entering the Earth’s magnetic fields at the poles.

Warsaw Uprising Maps

Map Room staff recently found this ordinary looking booklet amongst material donated to the library. A rough English translation of the Polish text is ‘Sketches designed for Polish defences in Poland and the situation on the ground’.

When opened, though, what treasures were found inside. As well as the eight pages of maps showing troop movements during the 1939 invasion of Poland by the German Army, bound into the pamphlet there were a number of loose sheets which dealt with the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Only one map, showing details of destruction in the city, has any publishing information: ‘Prepared by the Building Department of the Polish Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Shipping. Printed in the Geographical Section of the Polish Ministry of Information’. The Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation dates to 1939, when the Polish Government in Exile formed. This branch was the main source of information and propaganda for the Polish war effort.

The Warsaw Uprising of 1944 was designed to coincide with advances made by Soviet forces moving through Poland. Starting on the 1st of August, the insurgency was initially successful, with most of central Warsaw soon coming under Polish control. Continued success, though, depended crucially on Soviet cooperation. The deliberate halt of their advance just outside Warsaw allowed the German Army to re-group and defeat the Polish Resistance Home Army. This led to mass executions of both fighters and civilians and the destruction of large parts of the city. By January 1945 some 85% of central Warsaw was in ruin.

We show here three of the maps dealing with the Uprising. The first is from a set of five maps showing blocks of houses held by the Polish Underground Army between the 24th of August and the 15th of September at 1:50,000 scale. The maps also show streets that were either fully or partly under the control of German forces. As can be seen from the image, in some cases the streets held by the Germans ran next to — and in one case through — Polish-held areas. (C31:35 Warsaw (58)).


The second map shows areas of the city liberated by the Polish Underground Army between the start of August and the end of September (C31:35 Warsaw (63)).


While the third shows the situation in the centre at the time of surrender (C31:35 Warsaw (61)).


This series also includes four maps not shown here: one indicating the level of destruction in the centre (C31:35 Warsaw (59)); one recording the make-up of the houses in the city (C31:35 Warsaw (62)); a general map of the city naming the districts (C31:35 Warsaw (60)) and a map showing the Soviet front-line near the city on the 1st of August and 1st of October 1944 and fortifications around the city (C31:24 (21)).

Maps, front or back?

Pilot Chart of the North Atlantic Ocean - June 1923

Some maps are purely functional, getting you from A to B or answering the question ‘where is…?’. Other maps, such as these Pilot Charts, give information on a variety of topics. All maps do something. Some — though not all — look good at the same time. Some maps though give a little bit more, go beyond what is normally expected in giving as much information as you could possibly need and information you didn’t even know you needed. ‘Pilot Chart of the North Atlantic Ocean’, maps produced every month by the Hydrographic Office in Washington by the U.S. Navy does just this.

The maps cover an area from Cape Chidley on the Quebec / Newfoundland border at top left down to Cape Sao Roque in Brazil and from the southern tip of Norway down to the coast of Gabon on the right-hand side. The maps deal with shipping conditions in the North Atlantic, giving prevailing winds, current direction, sailing routes and information on location of buoys, icebergs and fog banks. The front of each map is also full of facts, diagrams and insets on such diverse subjects as; observed meteors, flags and their meanings, wind and weather, sailing routes and currents.

storm - Copy

mine - Copy

In itself this is an impressive amount of information but it’s when you turn the sheet over that you discover just how much these maps offer. The series started production in the late 1800s, though the holdings in the Bodleian, which number 243 charts, run between 1923 and 1947. Each one has something different on the back. It might be a history of whaling, iceberg flows, wind and weather conditions or, our favourite in the map room, a visual guide to mines from the Second World War. Examples of these images are included here. The collection is stored at the shelfmark K1:1 (22).

whales - Copy



bergs - Copy

ub - Copy

Pilot Chart of the North Atlantic Ocean - June 1923 (Questions and Answers)


Boxes arrived in the map department recently, a donation of material from our friends at Cambridge University Library. When opened they revealed their contents, 945 German 1:25,000s, all from between 2003 to 2007.

DSCF8718We have 500 of these in the collection already, but nothing from after 1999, in fact some of the maps in our holdings were old enough to have these stamps on,

so this new intake will bring our set more up to date as well as filling in some of the gaps in our holdings.

Donated maps on left, Bodleian holdings on right

The maps are the German equivalent of the Explorer series and are detailed enough to show field boundaries, the only disadvantage to the sheets is that they are quite a bit
smaller than those produced by the Ordnance Survey.
The series, ‘Topographische Karte 1:25,000’ is stored at C22 (15d), and is indexed.

Both piles integrated and ready to go into the stacks

History of the Map Room

While maps and atlases have come into the library from its earliest days the map collection began in earnest in 1800, following a decision made to start the purchase of English and Foreign maps. In 1813 the Curators of the library ordered a large table to be made to hold the increasing collection of maps and atlases, which had grown in size with the bequest in 1809 of the collection of Richard Gough, which included the world famous map of Britain, the ‘Gough Map’, dating from the 1370s and the earliest map in existence showing a road network.


The main part of the collection though has been, from the start, the printed maps of the Ordnance Survey, published from 1801 onwards and which comes into the library under the legal deposit arrangement of 1610. This was followed in the second half of the nineteenth century by the hydrographic charts published by the Admiralty, and by 1882 it was reckoned that the library was receiving between three and four thousand sheets a year from these two organizations alone.

For many years the collection was held in the Douce Room (now part of the Lower Reading Room) where it was felt that ‘In default of means of dealing with them and of space for their storage, maps, it is to be feared, were regard as an encumbrance’. (1)

The collection moved from the Douce Room in 1887, into the Moral Philosophy School room in the Old Schools quadrangle. Fitted out at a cost of £480 this space was soon cramped and it wasn’t until the completion of the New Library in 1939, and with it a large purpose-built room on the east side of the building with storage areas set aside in the stacks on the same floor that the Map Department had finally a proper home.

Increased storage in the New Bodleian bookstack was soon put to good use. Throughout the Second World War and after the library has been fortunate in receiving from the Geographical Section of the War Office, and more recently the Ministry of Defence, a large number of maps from both the Allies and Axis forces, giving the Bodleian not only maps of historical interest but also detailed mapping of parts of the world that the library had poor cover of up until the arrival of these donations.

Bodley’s map collection was held in the New Library until 2010 when, along with all the other material held by the library, the maps, atlases and globes moved to purpose-built accommodation in Swindon. With over a million maps to call on the collection is stored in a controlled environment in drawers with space to let the collection grow, through material published in Great Britain that comes to the library via the legal deposit agreement of 1610 and the large number of donations the Bodleian receives each year. While the Ordnance Survey continues to be the make up a great part of the collection donations from the Ministry of Defence means the library has a large amount of material dealing with Britain’s military and colonial past, from trench maps from the western front to tribal maps of Africa.

  1. Craster, E. History of the Bodleian Library 1845-1945, 1952. Pg 81, X1.11.