The Internet is a great place to do research, but when it comes to finding data about the past, it’s not always the best option. Many old records, such as maps, are not hosted in many locations.
This may make you feel as if your only option is to head to the nearest big-city library and dive into their stacks, but there are a few online resources that provide a decent selection of historical maps. They’re great for amateur researchers and anyone interested in what people thought the world looked like in the past.
A new site, Old Maps Online aims to be the definitive source of free map information on the Internet. So far, it seems to have a good chance of becoming just that.
The secret sauce is a combination of excellent map data and smooth technology. The data comes from a number of other online sources such as the popular David Rumsey Map Collection, A Vision of Britain through Time, the Moravian Library and others. The user interface is courtesy of Klokan Technologies, a developer that specializes in geographic information.
This collaboration results in a brilliant, highly detailed map of the world that is seemingly covered in historical maps. Most locations have not one but ten or twenty maps associated with them. Better yet, the map has a chronological filter at the top. This makes locating maps from specific eras much easier.
Old Maps Online does not host any of the maps, but its partners don’t charge for access. This is the best site to start with if you want to do some basic research about historical maps across the globe.
Hosted by the University of Texas, the Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection is simply a catalog of maps that have been scanned to digital files. Unlike Old Maps Online, it doesn’t offer a slick interactive global map that lets you quickly jump between regions. You’re going to have to read through some text to find what you want. The overall collection is also much smaller than what Old Maps Online can offer.
With that said, this map collection is scanned at high quality. Some maps have had additional information, such as appendixes, scanned in alongside them – something you don’t find at Old Maps Online. The maps are simple image files, as well, so less powerful computers and mobile devices won’t flip out while trying to load them.
As if that weren’t enough, the site includes a hugely useful list of other historical map sites. They’re in various languages and some of them are so small that they consist of just a couple pages of map images, which is why the list is awesome. It’s like an obsessive map addict who has gone through the trouble of trawling thousands of Google results for you.
This may seem like a strange place to look for maps, but it’s quite logical. Digital maps are simply image files, so it only makes sense that some of them would end up on Flickr. There’s even an “Old Maps” group dedicated to, well, I think you get the point.
I probably won’t shock you when I say that organization is not Flickr’s strong suite. You should begin with the other two resources if you are looking to research historical maps from a specific area. Still, you can have some luck trying to search Flickr.
On the other hand, folks who want to look for old maps because they think they’re damn cool will wring a ton of use from this Flickr group. There are some very high-quality shots available, and some of them have been artistically cropped in a way that reduces their historical usefulness but makes them much more attractive as a wallpaper.
There are over 1,600 images in the Old Maps group. And don’t just limit yourself to standing on the sidelines. I’m sure they’d love for you to contribute if you have some high-quality historical maps to share.
If you look, you’ll find a lot of other places that offer historical maps online. But they’re usually not free, and are often focused on selling prints instead of providing data. For-pay sites usually don’t offer high-resolution versions of maps without first charging, for obvious reasons.
Please leave a comment if you know of any other sources for free, high-quality historical maps. Just keep in mind that Old Maps Online simultaneously covers a number of the most well regarded free map sites.