Sep 212010

This week we are delighted to bring you a guest blog post from Chris Fleet, Senior Map Curator at the National Library of Scotland. Chris shares his perspective on the history of mapping, and particularly urban mapping, and how the historical post office directors fit into this history. Chris also looks at how the AddressingHistory tool will enable a new perspective on these valuable historical resources.

Putting Street Directories on the Map

Towns like Edinburgh are well mapped these days – in electronic and paper forms – but it was not always like this.

Flickr Map Showing an Image of the National Library of Scotland Maps Building

Flickr Map Showing an Image of the National Library of Scotland Maps Building

These days, in addition to ubiquitous electronic maps and satellite images from Google, Bing, or Yahoo, a fresh handful of new paper maps are published every year by mainstream publishers such as the Automobile Association, Collins, Geographers A-Z, or Philips, as well as smaller specialist cartographers. This is without even considering the much larger number of publications including maps within them.

So its easy to forget that this modern abundance of urban mapping doesn’t extend back in time much before the 19th century for Edinburgh. The relatively limited earlier mapping of the burgh from the 16th century onwards for small and specialist audiences, dominated by military concerns, was replaced in the later 18th century by a diverse and steadily expanding civilian urban market. Maps appeared in a range of new publications – almanacs, directories, newspapers, travel accounts, books on history and geography, and publications of learned societies – for new literate audiences.  In addition, the steady replacement of copper-plate engraving by lithography during the 19th century allowed maps to be produced and updated much more cheaply.

Lithographic stone by edinburghcityofprint (the Edinburgh City of Print initiative)

Lithographic stone by edinburghcityofprint (the Edinburgh City of Print initiative)

Maps for Post Office Directories grew both in frequency and in the towns they covered as the century progressed, but they were always driven by these commercial and technological constraints. Only Aberdeen, Dundee,  Edinburgh, and Glasgow were regularly mapped before 1850 in Directories. After Ordnance Survey mapped Scotland’s towns at large scales from 1855-1880, many smaller towns – Ayr, Banff, Dumfries, Greenock and Perth – were mapped for Directories, whilst for the larger towns there were fresh new maps every year. Map publishers such as W & AK Johnston and Bartholomew – both based in Edinburgh too – rose to the fore to dominate production. Although plain and utilitarian, Post Office Directory maps are a key information source. Their value in illustrating the dramatic urban expansion and change at this time is heightened when we put them into a longer historical cartographic context. Ordnance Survey may have mapped these towns in more detail, but far less frequently, so that the Directory maps allow a much more precise record of the changing townscape.

Screen capture of the Bartholomew Post Office Plan of Edinburgh and Leith, 1893-4

Part of the Bartholomew Post Office Plan of Edinburgh and Leith, 1893-4 (click the image to view the map on the NLS website)

For me, whilst Post Office Directory maps on paper have always been fascinating and useful for urban history, digitising, geo-referencing and integrating them with the textual content of the Directory brings out a whole new dimension to their value. Geo-referencing the maps allows them to be readily overlaid and compared to later and present day maps – the Visualising Urban Geographies project allows the advantages of this to be appreciated for maps of Edinburgh from 1765 to 1940. Geo-referencing the written content of the Directory, and creating dynamic spatial distributions of people or professions at the touch of a button, opens up a whole new graphical way of visualising the Directory content. By linking the results to a map of the same time period, the distributions can also be understood and appreciated much more readily. The AddressingHistory tool illustrates this new and powerful way of interrogating the Directories cartographically and geographically, and allows an important, but often neglected genre of urban mapping to be given a new relevance today.

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