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Magnificent Maps From the World Digital Library

Launched in 2009, the World Digital Library [WDL] was a project of the U.S. Library of Congress, with the support of UNESCO, and contributions from libraries, archives, museums, educational institutions, and international organizations around the world. The WDL sought to preserve and share some of the world’s most important cultural objects, increasing access to cultural treasures and significant historical documents to enable discovery, scholarship, and use.

WDL partner institutions chose content for its cultural and historical importance, with due regard to recognition of the achievements of all countries and cultures over a wide range of time periods. The materials collected by the WDL include cultural treasures and significant historical documents including books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, journals, prints, photographs, sound recordings, and films.

In 2020, the WDL Charter concluded. In 2021, after more than 10 years of operation, the Library transitioned WDL’s world-wide collection of cross-cultural treasures into a sustainable home for perpetual access on the Library of Congress’s main website. The original World Digital Library site is preserved by the Library of Congress Web Archive, which captures the look and feel of the site. Now available on the Library’s main website, the collection is a rich and valuable resource showing the diversity of the world’s cultures through the contributions of hundreds of organizations.

With the addition of the WDL material to the Library’s website, you may notice hundreds of new maps available in your searches of the digital map collections, scanned from partner institutions! While it was difficult to choose from so many wonderful maps, I have chosen five WDL maps to highlight in this post.

A black and white map that shows the earth in two horizontal heart shaped sections, with the bottom of the hearts touching one another.

World Map on Double Cordiform Projection. Map by Gerhard Mercator, 1538. Original held by the American Geographical Society Library. World Digital Library.

This world map on two sheets is an early work of the famous Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator (1512–94). Only two copies of the map are extant: this one from the American Geographical Society Library, and one at the New York Public Library. This is also the first map to apply the name America to the North American continent as well as to South America and to differentiate North and South America as separate continents. In using the term “America” in this way, Mercator shares responsibility with Martin Waldseemüller for naming the Western Hemisphere. Mercator was a master of engraving and a creator of mathematical instruments and terrestrial globes. His solution to the problem of accurately conveying the Earth’s sphere in only two dimensions, as used here in a double-heart-shaped projection, resulted in maps of greatly increased accuracy. Mercator’s navigational charts enabled compass bearings to be plotted in straight lines on charts and clarified longitude and latitude measurements.

Map of the world with south towards the top. The continents are outlined in green ink and a blue decorated border.

World Map. Map by Nicolas Desliens, 1566. Original held by the National Library of France. World Digital Library.

This portolan world map, drawn by Nicolas Desliens in 1566, synthesizes Norman hydrographic knowledge in the mid-16th century. It is one of two world maps by Desliens known to exist; the other dates from 1541. The map is oriented with south at the top and north at the bottom, giving it an upside-down look to the modern viewer. La Nouvelle France occidentalle (Western New France) is written in large letters over an arc-shaped North America. The map shows part of the western coast of North America, which extends beyond the edge of the map, but most of the Pacific Ocean is not shown. The map reflects the political affiliations of newly discovered lands. The territories claimed by France are indicated by flags with fleurs-de-lis, in Canada (Labrador), Florida (on the May River), and Brazil (on the Rio de la Plata). Desliens is known only from his work and inscriptions on his maps indicating that he worked in Dieppe and Arques; no biographical information about him survives.

Map of the Whole World. Published by Hayashi Jizaemon, 1671. Original held by National Diet Library. World Digital Library.

The first world map published in Japan appeared in 1645. Shown here is a popular version of that first map, published in 1671. It is divided into two parts: the right side contains an oblong egg-shaped world map with the east at the top, while the left side depicts people from 40 countries in national costume. The latter are arrayed in five rows of eight, depicting people both of existing countries, such as Portugal and the Netherlands, and imaginary countries, such as “Dwarf Country” and “Giant Country.” These maps are thought to be based on older Western maps, obtained during the age of Japanese trade with Portugal, and on the world map by Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) obtained through China, rather than on the newer and more accurate maps by Joan Blaeu (1596-1673) that were brought to Japan by the Dutch.

Bird's eye view map of Stockholm. A river cuts the city in half with islands in the center connected by bridges. It shows buildings, ships, roads, farmland, etc.

Stockholm. Map by Heinrich Neuhaus, 1870. Original held by the National Library of Sweden. World Digital Library.

Heinrich Neuhaus (1833–87) was a German-born map maker and lithographer who worked in Sweden for many years. His largest and best-known work is this panoramic map of Stockholm, which he created in the 1870s using an oblique image in isometric perspective. The buildings on the map are depicted with remarkable accuracy. Neuhaus is reported to have said that in order to produce the map, he walked through every neighborhood of the city and sketched the exterior of its buildings and other structures. The map captures the rapid growth of Stockholm that was characteristic of major European cities in the second half of the 19th century. Neuhaus made maps in a similarly three-dimensional style of the Stockholm districts of Norrmalm, Sodermalm, and Ostermalm.

A map of the United States with an overlay of a human body showing the blood vessels and organs. The head is on the west coast and the feet over the Atlantic Ocean.

The Man of Commerce. Map by Augustus F. McKay, 1889. Original held by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries. World Digital Library.

“The Man of Commerce” is a detailed map that conflates human anatomy with the American transportation system. Published in 1889 by the Land & River Improvement Company of Superior, Wisconsin, the map promotes Superior as a transportation hub and shows the routes of 29 railroads across the United States. The outline map of North America is superimposed by a cutaway diagram of the human body. The map’s metaphor makes West Superior “the center of cardiac or heart circulation.” The railways become major arteries. New York is “the umbilicus through which this man of commerce was developed.” The explanatory notes conclude: “It is an interesting fact that in no other portion of the known world can any such analogy be found between the natural and artificial channels of commerce and circulatory and digestive apparatus of man.” Use of the human body as a cartographic metaphor dates back at least to the 16th century, to the anthropomorphic map of Europe as a queen in Sebastian Münster’s Cosmography (1570). This map may be the earliest application of this metaphor to North America. The cartographer was A.F. McKay, who in 1889 briefly served as the editor of the Superior Sentinel newspaper. The map was engraved by Rand McNally. The American Geographical Society Library acquired the map in 2009, aided in part by the Map Society of Wisconsin. The only other known copy of this map is in a private collection.

These are merely a handful of WDL maps waiting to be explored. You can view all 1,420 World Digital Library maps here!

*Most of the text for this post was taken from the WDL Collection website and descriptions of the maps in the catalog records.

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