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Georeferencing to bring old maps to life

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The British Library is calling on members of the public to help in a digital quest to reveal the hidden context of historic maps.

Some 800 items have been selected for the Georeferencer Project from the British Library’s collection of more than 4.5 million maps. The georeferencing interface enables people to plot locations on historic maps by comparing a digitised image with present-day online maps.

By choosing points that correspond between the historic map and the present, the user generates an overlay in Google Earth, allowing the user to see how areas have changed and developed over time, giving a modern-day context for maps up to 400 years old.

The last time the British Library undertook such a project the response from the public was described as remarkable, with 708 maps completed in less than one week. Volunteers who take part in this georeferencing project will have their name attached to each tag so they will be able to chart their progress and see what they have contributed to the overall project. When the project is completed, the most prolific georeferencer will be announced by the British Library.

'This project brings together people’s passion for maps and history with the latest online crowdsourcing tools,' says Kimberly Kowal, lead curator of digital mapping at the British Library. 'Although many locations have changed significantly over the centuries, sometimes almost beyond recognition, only a handful of common features – street intersections, buildings or some natural features – are necessary to link the past with the present.'