The best historical map site on the web

 In Articles, Branding, Business, crime, Design, Education, Explainer, fiction, history, research, writing

I’m writing historical novels, so I use old maps a lot in my research. Over the last few years, more and more map owners have put their maps on the web, so it’s become increasingly easy to find excellent documents that have been scanned into a very high resolution format, so that they can be easily searched and examined.

Some of the best documents are held by universities and libraries. But that doesn’t mean you have to trawl each of their websites to find good maps. There are so many enthusiasts out there, posting maps on blogs or websites, or collecting them on places like Pinterest, that maps have become increasingly easy to find.

While I’ve been writing The Devil’s Half Mile and its sequel, Hudson’s Kill, I’ve used a huge variety of sources to do my research. And I’ve found the New York Public Library the most useful of all. You might think that’s obvious – I’m writing about New York at the turn of the 18th century, and who’s going to have better maps of New York during that period than the city’s library? But it’s not just that they have a great collection of maps – or copies of them, it’s that they have this incredible tool for examining them: The Map Warper.

Great name, right? The warper allows you to pull up old maps….and lay them over modern maps to compare the two! How cool is that? It takes a little getting used to, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it is so much fun – and fascinating, too. You lay the old map over the contemporary map, and move a transparency slide, to fade the old map in and out, so you can see where buildings stood and where roads used to run and where they run today. In the top left of this post you can see detail of map of the tip of Manhattan that I use a lot for reference, dated 1797. On the right you can see it shifted to semi-transparency. It’s an incredible experience, seeing how New York has changed – and in some cases, how it hasn’t.

The map warper doesn’t just have maps of Manhattan or New York state. There are all sorts in the collection, but the urban area maps are the most detailed and, for my money, the most thrilling. Check it out. It’s the most fun you’ll have with a map since Google came out with Earth.

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