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1000 Years (Give or Take a Few) of Digital Mapping

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This is a map.

Of course, it’s not just any map. It’s the Universalis Cosmographia Secundum Ptholomaei Traditionem et Americi Vespucii Alioru[m]que Lustrationes from 1507, otherwise known as the Waldseemüller map after its creator, Martin Waldseemüller. It was the first map, printed or manuscript, to depict clearly a separate Western Hemisphere, with the Pacific as a separate ocean, and also the first map to use the name “America.” When it comes to maps, this map is about as “map-y” as you can get.

Maps and atlases were among the first items acquired when the Library of Congress was established in 1800, and the Library’s holdings represent the largest and most comprehensive cartographic collection in the world, numbering over 5.2 million maps, including 80,000 atlases, 6,000 reference works, numerous globes and three-dimensional plastic relief models (like the large one on the right), and a large number of cartographic materials in other formats, including electronic.

So we all know what a map looks like, right?

So is this a map?

Or this? (Click on the “start” icon in the top left corner to see it in action.)

Or this?

Each of these “maps” share elements with the Waldseemüller, yet they’re all different in significant ways. They pack an increased amount of location information within a roughly similar size and shape, but the challenges of preserving them and keeping them understandable over time has increased considerably. These maps (or at least ones like them), in all their beauty and complexity, will one day be revered for what they tell us about our culture in the early decades of the 21st century.

Goodbye static idea of the map; welcome to the world of geospatial information.

Benthic Map of Redfish Bay, Texas by NOAA’s National Ocean Service on Flickr

The term “geospatial” is defined as “the combination of spatial software and analytical methods with terrestrial or geographic datasets,” but has come to represent “digital mapping” in its myriad forms.

The above examples represent the dramatic revolution taking place in the technologies of cartography and the graphical representation of location information. These dramatic changes impact the Library’s mission to support the Congress and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.

Because of the Library’s long-time interest in cartography, the transition to large-scale digital mapping based on geospatial technology caught the early interest of NDIIPP and we have supported several projects that explore the challenges of preserving digital geospatial information.

NGDA logoThe National Geospatial Digital Archive Project was one of the original 8 NDIIPP projects that began work in 2004. The project brought together the University of California at Santa Barbara Libraries and the Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources to model a national federated network committed to archiving geospatial imagery and data. They also developed a series of policy agreements governing material retention, rights management, obligations of partners, interoperability of systems and the exchange of digital geospatial objects.


The North Carolina Geospatial Data Archiving Project, another initial NDIIPP project, looked at the issues around preserving geospatial information within the confines of the state of North Carolina and made a valuable series of recommendations that helped define a research agenda for preserving digital geospatial data.

GeoMAPP logo

NCGDAP’s innovative work was expanded in the GeoMAPP project in 2007, bringing together the original North Carolina participants with partners in Kentucky, Montana and Utah to explore how the NCGDAP findings could be implemented across several state governments. The GeoMAPP work continues through the end of 2011. website banner

More recently, NDIIPP is helping to develop the Geospatial Data Preservation Resource Center with the Center for International Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University to serve as a central information resource and clearinghouse for communities interested in the preservation of geospatial data.

In addition to these activities, NDIIPP has been actively involved in the Federal Geographic Data Committee’s Users/Historical Data Working Group, promoting an awareness across Federal agencies of the historical dimension to geospatial data and working to facilitate the long-term retention, storage, preservation and accessibility of selected geospatial data across all levels of government.

These projects represent a mere tip of the iceberg when it comes to the Library’s efforts to ensure that our digital cartographic legacy survives for future generations.

It’s important to note that NDIIPP has been doing this work while operating in a rapidly changing technological landscape. For example, when NDIIPP began its work in 2000, Google Maps, Facebook, FourSquare, Bing, WordPress, Flickr, the iPod and YouTube, amongst many others technologies and tools we now take for granted, didn’t exist.

Technologies change. The past 500 years have provided ample opportunities to return to the Waldseemüller map, but the challenges ahead for digital geospatial information mean that NDIIPP must continue to evolve to ensure that digital maps survive for the next 500 years to allow similar opportunities for reappraisal and the development of new knowledge.

Note: This post was updated on 10/29/14 to fix broken links.


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