State University of New York at Stony Brook
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The Map Collection

Online Map Catalogs in North America and Europe

Revised 9/20/00

By David Y. Allen

NOTE:  This article is intended as introduction for researchers who need basic information about how to find and use online map catalogs.   A version of this artilce appeared in the July/August 2000 issue of Mercator's World . The author plans to keep it updated as additional information becomes available.   Please send suggestions and comments to David Allen.


   Have you ever wanted to locate a map of Munich printed in 1633? Or perhaps your research requires a comprehensive list of maps of Cornwall published at various dates?

    Until recently, a search for specialized materials like these required a visit to a major map library, and plowing through a variety of printed catalogs, bibliographies, reference books, monographs, and articles.

    The development of online catalogs accessible through the Internet has begun to change this situation. Begun is perhaps the operative word in the previous sentence, for the vast majority of old maps are still not cataloged online. Nonetheless it is now possible to search from your computer at home through close to a million catalog records for maps in North America and Europe. Most of these records are in some version of a standard format developed at the Library of Congrss called MARC (an acronym for machine readable cataloging).

    Locating and exploring these catalogs can be quite an adventure--as is any trip into unknown territory. Even librarians are often unfamiliar with many potentially useful online catalogs--especially those for European libraries. Here are presented some notes from my own preliminary reconaissance of this terra semi-incognita, which I hope will serve as sketchy "map" to others who may follow me and carry out more extensive explorations.

Online Map Catalogs in North America

    For those have not used online catalogs, it is probably best to begin at home (which I will assume is probably somewhere in North America). Although American libraries have been creating computerized catalog records for cartographic materials for several decades, most maps published prior to 1960 are still not available online. In the United States and Canada there are few specialized catalogs that contain only maps. Most records are included in comprehensive online catalogs that include records for books and journals, although usually there is some way to search for maps by format.

    Rather than go through online catalogs individually, it is usually easiest to search most of them at once using something called the OCLC WorldCat. OCLC (Online Computer Library Center, Inc.) has been around for a long time, and has mainly been used by catalogers, who have used it to create and share MARC records. Its database is being made available to the general public through libraries  through a service called First Search under the name WorldCat. This huge database now consists of more than 42 million cataloging records from 36,000 libraries in 74 countries. There are over 550,000 records for maps in this database, although few of them come from outside the United States and Canada. The WorldCat database is easy to search--the biggest problem with it is that you probably cannot search it from home. OCLC FirstSearch is offered only through libraries, and to people who get their Web access through libraries or academic institutions. Not every library offers First Search, but many do, and there is probably one near you.

    If you cannot get access to First Search, you can still search many individual library catalogs on the World Wide Web. The most important is the Library of Congress (, which has cataloged almost 200,000 maps, although that constitutes only a small fraction of their collection. A useful guide to searching the Library of Congress catalog for maps can be found at Maps recently cataloged by the New York Public Library, which houses another major map collection, can be found at The catalogs of numerous other libraries can be located using gateway sites, such as the worldwide listing of library catalogs at Yale University (

Online Map Catalogs in Europe

    The best way to begin exploring Europe's online catalogs is also through a gateway. Odden's Bookmarks (, which is the closest thing to a one-stop shop for all kinds of cartographic information, can be searched for online map catalogs. Click on "browse," then on "map collections," limit to the category "catalogues," and select "all countries." This will give you more than 40 hits (including some in North America), but does not include many comprehensive catalogs that include maps. Many of these can be found on Gabriel (, another gateway site that has links to many European national libraries. Another notable gateway site with links to both union catalogs and online catalogs of individual libraries is Tony Campbell's recently updated "Map Collections" page , which can be found on his History of Cartography Site hosted by the Institute of Historical Research (

    Those interested in the plans and projects being undertaken at various European libraries might want to examine the Web pages maintained by the LIBER Groupe des Cartothécaires ( These pages include articles on cataloging and progress reports from major European countries, and most are in English. (The materials not in English can be automatically translated by something called "Babelfish," which produced information for me about the Dept. of "cards and plans" at the Bibliothèque Nationale.)

    The closest thing to a European version of OCLC is (or was) a Dutch-based concern called Pica B.V.. Pica has three central databases in Holland, Germany and France, which contain approximately 40 million bibliographic records. For better or worse, Pica was taken over by OCLC at the end of last year. It is too early to say what the implications of this merger may be. The Pica and OCLC databases are in different formats, but if they can be integrated it would nearly double the size of the OCLC database. If the Pica database is in some way made available by OCLC, it will give those of us on this side of the Atlantic access to many new records for maps in European libraries. Among others, about 25,000 Dutch maps are available through the Pica system, and about 70,000 descriptions of maps in the Royal Library of the Netherlands will be converted to Pica format between 2000-2002, according to Jan Smits of the Royal Library. Pica is working on a Web-based catalog, which can view a previewed at (

    There is also a British Consortium of University Libraries, which has a union catalogue of 8 million records across 18 libraries called COPAC ( This catalog is easy to search, and has many records for maps, including historical maps. According to Nick Millea (Map Librarian at the Bodleian Library), the COPAC catalog includes about 10,000 maps from the Todhunter Allen Collection at Oxford. It will also include records from a collaborative retrospective conversion project called "Mapping the World," which involves seven UK academic institutions. A larger collection of British academic online catalogs can be accessed individually at A union database for Scottish research libraries can be searched at

    When one proceeds to the level of individual European library catalogs, things get really complicated. a large number of European maps have been converted into some sort of machine readable format. As in the United States, most of them are current maps and retrospective conversion is proceeding slowly or not at all. Many of the bibliographic records are in some national version of MARC, but there are a fair number of catalogs that use idiosyncratic formats. Both in terms of content and ease of use, the European catalogs range from very good to atrocious. They need to be described one at a time. I will hit a few of the highlights.

    A good deal of retrospective cataloging of maps has been done by German libraries. I was particularly impressed by the catalog of printed maps before 1850 contained in the Deutsches Bibliotheksinstitut (DBI) Berlin database ( Listing materials in several German libraries, it has a user-friendly interface with an English language option. This site contains some 250,000 descriptions of atlases and their individual pages, which probably makes it the largest bibliographic database for old maps in the world. Several other German catalogs are listed in Odden's Bookmarks.

    Keep in mind that in searching foreign language catalogs, you will usually have to input place names and other key words in the appropriate language. Thus in searching for that elusive map of Munich published in 1633, you will have to input the name as Muenchen or München to get good results in German catalogs.

    In Switzerland the IDS Basel/Bern catalog has a good collection of historical maps of Switzerland and neighboring countries (thanks to the Ryhiner Project at the University of Bern). The catalog is easy to search, and it also has an English language interface. The IDS catalog can be found at ( While you are online to Switzerland, you may want to look at the Web site of the Ryhiner Collection itself, which has a number of digital images of Swiss maps (

    The Royal Library of Sweden has a well designed Web site with records for many recent Swedish maps ( They may be found at the above site by following links to Web Search Advanced, Media Type Maps. They are conducting a project involving manuscript maps, but no retrospective cataloging of printed maps has yet taken place.

    Several Spanish libraries now have Web based catalogs with records for maps, although none of them include extensive holdings of historical maps.   The Biblioteca Nacional in Spain has cartographic records in IBERMARC format in its ARIADNA database.  At present these records include only  maps added to their collection since 1995.  This catalog can be found at  Once you get there,  click on a tattered British flag at the bottom of the left-hand menu bar to get an English language interface.  Then click on catalogues; then on automated catalogue ARIADNA; then on Maps and Plans.  The search interface is somewhat unusual, but it works quite well after you get used to it.

   Maps can also be found at the Web site of the Cartoteca General de la Universidad Autonóma de Barceloná (UAB).  The URL for this site is   One you get in, click on GEODOC, and look for the English language option.  A third major library with some maps in its catalog is that of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientifícas (CISC).  Their catalog can be found at

    Afficianados of Spanish maps should also take a look at the home page of the Cartoteca "Jose Estebanez Alvarez" of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid at   This site has available online online an alphabetical list of about 2000 maps.  It also features an excellent collection of links to other map collections and geography departments in Spain (look for "Recursos de información en Internet").  Over 7000 items from this collection can be searched for by keyword on the University's main online catalog at*spi.

    In Italy an important project involving historical maps is being conducted by the Marciana Library in Venice.  They have cataloged so far about 15,000 maps, including the complete work of Vincenzo Coronelli, and many maps and plans of Venice.   Unlike most of the projects discussed in this article, the catalog records are accompanied by low to medium quality images of the maps.  The English language interface, which is reasonably easy to use, an be found at

    Special mention should be made of the situation at what are probably the three richest and most heavily consulted European collections--the Bibliothèque Nationale, the British Library, and the Public Record Office.

    The Bibliothèque Nationale has cataloged over 167,000 maps. The catalog can be reached via their Web site at, which links to their Telnet based "Opaline" system. The maps are located in "Le Cataloge des Collections spécialisées." Opaline seems to be suffering from major communications problems. The catalog is unavailable from 7-12 p.m. (Paris time), and even when it is available I have had great trouble in getting through to it. The interface is one of the most cumbersome I have seen. One can only hope that Opaline will be replaced by something better.

    The British Library Manuscripts Catalogue can be searched at: . This catalogue is essentially an automated version of their archival finding aids. As such, it has limited value for locating individual maps, but it is certainly better than nothing. There is also a version of the old printed map catalogue of the British Library available on CD-ROM (reviewed in the March/April issue of Mercator's World). Unfortunately, the catalog is expensive and not widely available in libraries (although many research libraries have the older printed version of it). This catalogue is in a simplified version of UKMARC, and potentially could be made available online.

    The Public Record Office also has an online catalogue, which can be found at Like the British Library Manuscripts Catalogue, this is essentially an automated archival finding aid, and shares the limitations of that genre. I understand, however, that efforts are underway to upgrade that catalogue, and make it possible to search for individual maps.

    In summary, an impressive amount of map cataloging is being done in both North America and Europe. Much it is already online, and more will become available in the near future. Locating maps around the world is becoming much easier, but actually viewing them still requires contacting the holding institutions for copies, or undertaking extensive travel. Someday the maps themselves may be available online, but that day is a long way off.


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