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Rare, Antique African Maps Available Online

An unparalleled collection of 113 rare, antique maps of Africa is now available at no cost to interested scholars and individuals around the world, thanks to the efforts of staff at Northwestern University Library and Academic Technologies.

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January 9, 2007 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- An unparalleled collection of 113 rare, antique maps of Africa -- including one of Abyssinia published in 1530 by a pioneering mapmaker -- is now available at no cost to interested scholars and individuals around the world, thanks to the efforts of staff at Northwestern University Library and Academic Technologies.

Located at http://www.library.northwestern.edu/govinfo/collections/mapsofafrica/, the Web site includes digital images of original maps of Africa from the 16th through 20th centuries. The collection includes more than 40 maps published in either the 16th or 17th centuries. Part of the Herskovits Library of African Studies -- the world's largest separate collection of Africana -- the African maps constitute the most valuable map collection in Northwestern University Library.

Using the Web site, scholars not only can download the rare and often colorful maps but also view them in minute detail. Although detailed maps of Europe from the 16th and the 17th centuries are plentiful, African maps of that era are uncommon because few Western cartographers had yet to visit the African continent. The map from 1530 is the work of Gerhard Mercator, a Flemish geographer best known for the Mercator projection, a method of navigational map making he developed in 1569.

For scholars, the maps' value is as much in the cartographers' perceptions of Africa as in the quality of information that they present, according to Herskovits Library curator David Easterbrook. “While the creators of the earliest maps generally had rough ideas about the places they mapped, they often engaged in considerable guesswork,” he says. As a result, many are quite fanciful and include artistic flourishes, decorative emblems and drawings of topographical features, animals and people.

Users of the Web site can search the maps by date or browse the collection by country, geographical area, title, cartographer or place of publication. Search results include each map's catalog record.The Web site provides a thumbnail view of the entire map and includes an adjustable high-resolution viewer that allows for magnification of small map segments or details.

“The scanning is so good that you actually can see the threads in the linen papers on which the maps were printed,” says Beth Clausen, head of the library's government and geographic information and data services. “These are details you wouldn't be able to see without a magnifying glass if the maps were sitting on a table in front of you.”

African scholars and scholars elsewhere easily can download high-resolution TIFFs at no charge. That free access is a feature Northwestern University Library staff view as a major benefit of all the digitization projects the library has undertaken. The maps, which were scanned at 600 dots per inch resolution, are delivered through the University Library's new Fedora digital repository and the Aware JPEG2000 image server.

Additional digital collections made freely available on the Web by Northwestern University Library can be browsed at http://digital.library.northwestern.edu.

Topics: University