Monday 31 August 2020

Cambridge University Library’s Map Department in Lockdown


George Braun and Frans Hogenberg’s 1575 map of Cambridge

Cambridge University Library’s Map Department in Lockdown


Anne Taylor


As I am writing we have exceeded 120 days in Lockdown and so over 4 months (from 23 March) of Working From Home. I’ve sorted the best cushion arrangement for the various chairs I’ve been sitting on, got used to the lack of interruptions and worked out a routine for sharing the single computer at home that is linked to the Internet. It has, nevertheless, been difficult being away from the collection and doing nothing but screen-based work (though having had lots of annual leave to use up I have been able to have regular breaks). However, Cambridge University Library is now slowly coming back to life and I may even be able to go in, on an occasional basis, from mid-August. It will be great to see people and work with the collections once more, and I look forward to my three mile walk to work.


The last week at work before Lockdown was, of course, one of great uncertainty and urgency. I was on leave for two days and every time I looked at my work emails the sand seemed to have shifted a little bit more. Being away from work did, however, give me some quiet time to think about what Map Department staff might do at home, and what I might need to enable me to work at home. At the time, my laptop was old (bought in a panic 12 years previously after I’d broken my ankle and found myself at home for two months with no internet connection) and was very, very, very slow. Buying a replacement – also in a panic with stock levels decreasing online before my eyes! - was one of my best moves and I really don’t think I could have done very much work without it. As a bonus, the old laptop could be used for off-line word processing and database projects. The reliance of home working on staff having their own Internet connection and suitable devices (you can’t really catalogue on a small screen or with slow connection, and keeping in touch is much easier via the Internet) is a significant consideration.


So what have Map Department staff been up to during Lockdown (highlights only!)?


Wish you were here!

Although we were not able to take most categories of collection material home, it was decided that my Map Department colleagues - Ian Pittock, Michael Taylor, Karen Amies and Anna Reynolds – could work on boxes of unprocessed postcards. The Map Department collection includes thousands of postcards, mostly acquired through donation. Most are topographic views but there is also a sub-collection of postcards with maps on them. We write the country and place name on the back of each card. When we are able to return to work in the Library they will be filed away in order of country and place within that country. Unfortunately, we do not have time to assign a publication date to the cards so they are not filed in strict chronological order. Processing the backlog of cards is not normally priority work, but Lockdown has provided an ideal opportunity to assess them and make them accessible – people always love looking at them (front and back, many have writing on the reverse) - and thus clear some shelf space. My colleague Ian Pittock has been tweeting images of postcards at @theULSpecColl and has written Blogpost about this work.

Ian’s blog post about Lockdown work on the postcard collection

Nothing like a Good Database

I rather like working with databases and I was able to get engrossed in two major projects. The first was updating and slightly restructuring the Map Department’s Finding List. This is maintained in an MS Access database and is a surprisingly complicated (and long, 54 pages when printed) document due to the many types of classmark we have, because we are unable to store all items in strict order of classmark, and because we have storage space scattered throughout the University Library (and beyond). The second big database project involved the editing and checking of Map Department data in preparation for its migration from the old archive catalogue (Janus) to the new Archives Management System (ArchivesSpace) which will go live later this year (see ArchiveSearch for a preview of the public search interface). My old, antiquated laptop was invaluable for this since Janus depends on data being entered into an old version of MS Access which will not work on, for example, a Windows 10 machine. I was able to spend many fruitful days editing the data and ‘cleaning’ it ready for migration. Days that I would not have been able to commit to this under normal circumstances

A plan of Wolverhampton railway station from Maps.RLY.aa.366-370, one of the items listed in the ArchiveSearch as part of our wonderful collection of railway maps.


The first MS Word project I undertook was to revise various shelf and bay labels, at the same time comparing them to the Finding List. This is one of those many jobs which had been on my to-do list for ages, but since the printed labels and manuscript annotations did the job, it was not a priority. Everything will now be much clearer, and look smarter. I’ve also been working on another long-standing project, the enhancement of our finding aids for certain Ordnance Survey maps. Having uninterrupted time to work on this has been a complete boon.


The World of the Web

Lockdown is providing the ideal opportunity to update Map Department web and intranet pages. Ian Pittock is playing a key role in checking links. I’m also webmaster for the Map Curators’ Group of the British Cartographic Society (BCS) and have updated the Map Curators’ Toolbox on the BCS website.

New Tools and Skills

We have all had to adapt to virtual meetings and learn to use MSTeams and Zoom, all of which now feels completely normal. In addition, Ian Pittock and myself have been getting to grips with Leganto online reading lists. Because the Map Department collections are relevant to many University courses and we do not have a close relationship/affinity with any particular department, we have been helping other Libraries add their reading lists to the system. It has been a great opportunity to learn something new whilst helping out and cooperating with other libraries. I have also been able to use Lockdown to work on a Cartographic Resources LibGuide. I must admit that this is taking much longer than I anticipated and is not quite ready to go public, but check the LibGuide site in a few weeks.


Ask a Map Librarian

We are, of course, still receiving enquiries. I answer these as best I can, though it is easy to forget – just for a moment – that you cannot go and physically check that vital detail. I thought it might be interesting to share some of the key online resources I have been using:

National Library of Scotland’s map images web site. Our colleagues there have scanned a hugely impressive number of maps. Their priority was maps of Scotland but they have also scanned thousands of Ordnance Survey maps of England and Wales. The easiest way to find them is via the Marker Pin facility (click the map to move the pin to your area of interest and maps of various dates that cover this area will appear on the right hand side ; the more you zoom in, the more detailed these maps will become). If you use the Georeferenced Maps option you can search for names on Ordnance Survey six-inch maps from around 1900. Just use the 'Search OS six-inch 1888-1913 names' search box on the left hand side (it is in a slighter darker purple/grey box), a great resource for family history research, amongst other things.

Cambridge on the National Library of Scotland’s ‘Marker Pen’ map search facility

Another excellent resource is the David Rumsey Map Collection, an impressive online collection       of map images. The maps cover all parts of the world and I find it easiest to find things using the        MapRank Search


·        The Old Maps Online website is also great (search for a place in the box at the top, move the map around and zoom in and out and thumbnails of maps covering the area shown display on the right hand side) as is the A Vision of Britain Through Time site which provides access to historical maps as well as many textual resources.


·        The University of Chicago’s History of Cartography Project is a mammoth ongoing research project the main result of which is a series of volumes on, well, the history of cartography! Additionally wonderful is that these volumes are available freely online. Subject matter ranges from Cartography in Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean, through to the Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian, and Pacific Societies, Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies and Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies to Cartography in the Twentieth Century


If YOU have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me on


Keep safe and see you soon!


Anne Taylor