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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and share some of the world’s most important cultural objects, increasing access to cultural treasures and significant historical documents to enable discovery, scholarship, and use.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 The materials collected by the WDL include cultural treasures and significant historical documents including books, manuscripts, maps, newspapers, journals, prints, photographs, sound recordings, and films.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.

Nicolas de Fer:The Royal Geographer

The French cartographer and engraver, Nicolas de Fer, was a master at creating maps that were works of art. The maps that he published were printed during the Baroque period when the decorative arts were characterized by ornate detail. De Fer’s detailed maps and atlases were valued more for their decorative content than their geographical […]

Searching for Saint Brendan’s Island

Over the years I have noticed the placement of Saint Brendan’s Island on historical maps. I became curious about the mythical island and the story behind it. Saint Brendan’s Island was placed in different locations on maps of the Atlantic Ocean. The island was often placed west of England and Ireland. It was also placed […]

Verba Incognita: A Guide to Deciphering Latin on Maps

This is a guest post by Kelly Bilz, Librarian-in-Residence in the Geography and Map Division. Even though Latin had fallen out of vernacular use after the fall of Rome (and began to evolve into the modern Romance languages), it lived on in its written form, becoming the lingua franca, so to speak, of scholarship. In […]

The Exotic Animals of the Americas

European colonists were fascinated with the wildlife of the Western Hemisphere. They described fauna native to the Americas in memoirs, travel journals and poetry. Pictures of the unfamiliar animals were often printed on maps. In this post I will discuss four colonial era maps that were decorated with illustrations of animals. The two maps of […]

18th Century Maps of North America: Perception vs. Reality

Between 1755 and 1775, over the course of just twenty years, three seminal maps of North America were published in London, even though those responsible for the maps never left England! These three maps, discussed in more detail below, were prepared for a British audience in an attempt to reinforce opinions regarding British control of North America. A fourth map, also published in London, depicts the extent of the United States in 1802.

Mitchell, John, Thomas Kitchin, and Andrew Millar. A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements, humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable the Earl of Halifax, and the other Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners for Trade & Plantations. [London; Sold by And: Millar, 1755] Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Mitchell, John, Thomas Kitchin, and Andrew Millar. A map of the British and French dominions in North America, with the roads, distances, limits, and extent of the settlements, humbly inscribed to the Right Honourable the Earl of Halifax, and the other Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners for Trade & Plantations. [London; Sold by And: Millar, 1755] Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Arguably the most important of the first three pre-1800 maps addressed in this blog is John Mitchell’s iconic 1755 Map of the British and French Dominions in North America pictured above. At the request of the English Board of Trade and Plantations, the equivalent of the State Department, Mitchell was tasked with preparing a large map of North America based upon maps provided by each of the thirteen colonial governors. The intriguing story behind the map lies with its illustrated claim of English sovereignty extending from the Atlantic Ocean westward past the Mississippi and, eventually, to the Pacific Ocean. These claims are evidenced by the horizontal colonial boundaries extending into French territory.

Our second map, pictured below, was originally published in London by Emanuel Bowen in 1763. Unlike Mitchell’s map, which incorporated the territorial aspirations of the British colonies, the 1763 map by Bowen illustrated the political realities dictated by the 1763 Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Year’s War in North America.

Bowen, Emanuel, -1767, J Gibson, and Robert Sayer. An accurate map of North America. Describing and distinguishing the British and Spanish dominions on this great continent; according to the definitive treaty concluded at Paris 10th Feby. Also all the West India Islands belonging to, and possessed by the several European princes and states. London, Printed for Robert Sayer, 1763. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Bowen, Emanuel, -1767, J Gibson, and Robert Sayer. An accurate map of North America. Describing and distinguishing the British and Spanish dominions on this great continent; according to the definitive treaty concluded at Paris 10th Feby. Also all the West India Islands belonging to, and possessed by the several European princes and states. London, Printed for Robert Sayer, 1763. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The third revolutionary map in our saga was published in London by Carington Bowles in 1771. Like the Bowen map illustrated above, it, too, includes colonial territory lost in 1763, but also emphasizes unsettled colonial boundaries.  Of those, the most notable are the western boundary of Pennsylvania, the northeastern boundary of Virginia, and the western boundary of New York, as establishment of each defined those colonies’ access to Lake Erie.

Bowles, Carington. North America, and the West Indies; a new map, wherein the British Empire and its limits, according to the definitive treaty of peace, in , are accurately described, and the dominions possessed by the Spaniards, the French, & other European States. The whole compiled from all the new surveys, and authentic memoirs that have hitherto appeared. [London, 1774 ?, 1774]

Bowles, Carington. North America, and the West Indies; a new map, wherein the British Empire and its limits, according to the definitive treaty of peace, in , are accurately described, and the dominions possessed by the Spaniards, the French, & other European States. The whole compiled from all the new surveys, and authentic memoirs that have hitherto appeared. [London, 177?, 1771]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

The final map of North America in our brief exploration of revolutionary maps was published in London in 1802. Aaron Arrowsmith (1750-1823) produced the most current and accurate cartographic representation of the American West up to that date. Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark carefully studied the map in 1803 and even carried a copy on the first leg of their landmark expedition. Arrowsmith’s map immediately pre-dates the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and subsequent 1804-06 expedition by Lewis & Clark.  Rather than fill in the American West with conjectural or inaccurate data, he has deliberately left large areas blank, allowing viewers to envision for themselves the nature of the vast territory recently acquired before the landscape could be recorded by scientific surveys.

Arrowsmith, Aaron, and J Puke. A map exhibiting all the new discoveries in the interior parts of North America. [London: A. Arrowsmith, 1802]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. 

So why are these maps significant? And how do they illustrate cartographic perception and geographic reality?  First, British control of North America is implied in Mitchell’s 1755 map which depicts British colonies extending from “sea to sea”.  Secondly, the geographic reality of British control of North America are all shown on the commercially produced 1763 Bowen map, the 1774 Bowles’ map, and Arrowsmith’s 1802 map which all relied on factual data. It all comes down to the intentions of each cartographer and those who employed the cartographers!

Learn more:

Creating the United States. A Library of Congress exhibit drawing heavily on items related to American Revolution from various parts of the Library. (April 2008 – May 2012).

Rivers, Edens, and Empires: Lewis and Clark and the Revealing of America. A Library of Congress exhibit showcasing items from various collections the related to Lewis and Clark expedition. (July 2003 – November 2003).

Read more »

Hy-Brasil: The Supernatural Island

Hy-Brasil never existed, however, it was often shown on maps as a very small island west of Ireland. The name Hy-Brasil originated from Celtic mythology. According to Irish folklore an island named Hy-Brasil was visible from the west coast of Ireland for only one day every seven years, the rest of the time it was […]