Whether hiking the Appalachian Trail or trying to find Macy’s at the mall, where would we be without maps? Well … probably lost. Maps help locate us and get us from point A to B.
They’re perfect for presenting lots of information in one graphic image, and by definition maps must be functional. But do they have to be dull, confusing, number-laden sources of frustration? Of course they don’t. And nowhere that I know makes this point better than the David Rumsey Map Collection website.
Rumsey, one of the most enthusiastic and altruistic map collectors on the planet, has accumulated over 150,000 historical maps, 60,000 of which have been scanned and put online for free access at his excellent website. Not only are these high resolution maps available for review, but they can also be downloaded for personal, non-commercial use.
“Maps hold a clue to what makes us human. Certainly, they relate our history. They reflect our best and worst attributes – discovery and curiosity, conflict and destruction. Even as individuals, we seem to have a need to plot a path and track our progress, to imagine possibilities of exploration and escape.” —Simon Garfield, On the Map
I wouldn’t call myself a map geek, but my professional training and years of travel have instilled a keen interest in historical maps. For me, a visit to Rumsey’s website is like walking into a dusty, old bookshop or an old-fashioned hardware store. I know there must something there I need, and it only takes a bit of poking around to find it.
The scanned maps are very high resolution which makes it possible to zoom in for incredible detail and study.
The combination of rich detail, unbelievable variety and free online access, makes the website a marvelous trove for everyone – from the mildly curious to map wonks.
In his scholarly A History of the World in 12 Maps Jerry Brotton said, “Perhaps the best metaphorical description of maps was graffitied in 45-centimeter letters on a wall next to the railway line approaching Paddington Station in London:
“Far away is close at hand in images of elsewhere.”
“A metaphor, like a map, involves carrying something across from one place to another. Maps are always images of elsewhere, imaginatively transporting their viewers to faraway, unknown places, recreating distance in the palm of your hand. Consulting a world map ensures that faraway is always close at hand.”
If you have even a sliver of interest in historical maps, you owe it to yourself to visit this fun and informative website. But block out some time; you may be there a while.
P.S. Google has teamed up with Rumsey and their joint Geogarage project has wonderful map overlays of old maps overlaid on present-day city maps. This is an interactive map of New York City in 1936. Try the cool slider in the upper right corner.