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Map Library Overview

The Library departments of the British Museum were incorporated into the newly created British Library in 1973. The map collections have grown steadily since the Museum's foundation in 1753 and they are now spread over several parts of the Library. Taken together, they form the major cartographic collection in the British Isles, comprising materials in a variety of formats including maps, atlases, globes, adverts, postcards, printing plates, coins and medals

Twentieth-century series mapping is supported by a comprehensive historical collection, universal in its coverage. Legal deposit, international exchange, donation and purchase provide regular and substantial additions to these collections.

The principal repository of printed maps in the British Library is the Map Library, which has been a separate unit since 1867. Most western language manuscript maps (except those in King George III's Topographical and Maritime collections) have traditionally been housed in the Department of Manuscripts and those in oriental scripts in a separate department (formerly Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books, now Oriental and India Office Collections).

In 1982, the India Office Library and Records became part of the British Library, bringing with it a major collection of maps of South Asia. In a further development, in 1987, curatorial responsibility for manuscript maps passed to the Map Library. The Map Collections now form part of the Directorate of Scholarship and collections.

A panoramic view of London.

A panoramic view of London. Drawn and engraved by J.H.Banks. London : E.Wallis, 1845. Maps 162.n.2 © The British Library Board

History and scope of the Map Collections

The Map Library is the national map library of Great Britain, with a collection of over 4.25 million atlases, maps, globes and books on cartography, dating from the 15th century to the present day. This makes the collection the second largest in the world (after the Library of Congress). 

The Map Library receives through copyright deposit the complete range of British production. It also acquires foreign topographical maps at medium and small scales, supplemented by regular deposits of superseded mapping from the Directorate of Military Survey, as well as thematic and general atlases and maps. The historical collections are added to steadily through purchase and donation.

The special viewing requirements of maps, which are often very large, were recognised in the British Museum from the beginning. Shortly after the Museum opened in 1759 in its first quarters in Montague House, a special 6- by 8-foot reading table was installed in a 'Charts room'. However, the main foundation collection of the Map Library, the King George III Topographical Collection, did not come to the Map Library until 1828. This was King George III's collection of manuscript and printed maps, plans and topographical views, which remains today in its original geographical arrangement. Considering British colonial interests and military activity of the late 18th century, it is not surprising that it is perhaps the finest geographical collection in the world for 18th-century America.

The early 19th-century trustees of the British Museum were keen to maintain a good up-to-date collection of geographical maps. They provided Antonio Panizzi, who had been appointed Keeper of Printed Books in 1837, with special funds for map purchases. However, the treatment of the map collections as a separate administrative unit only really began in 1844 when Richard Henry Major was placed in charge of them. Following completion of the Iron Library in 1857, maps were housed and consulted in the basement of the South-East Quadrant. From 1867 until his retirement in 1880, there was a department of Maps headed by R.H. Major. 

After 1880 maps and charts were demoted to the status of sub-department. In 1892 most of the manuscript maps were transferred to the Department of Manuscripts and the Map Room became a division of the Department of Printed Books. The fortunes of the Map Room rose again in 1914, though, when it moved from the South-East basement up to relatively spacious quarters in the then-new King Edward VII building. There was even a plan to reunite the manuscript and printed map collections, but this did not materialise. 

The Map Room became the Map Library in 1973, when the British Library separated administratively from the British Museum. In 1985 the Map Library left the Department of Printed Books to become part of the newly formed Special Collections together with manuscripts and in 1998 moved to the new British Library premises in Euston Road.