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Scotland's National Library Map Collection

The Nation's Mapkeepers

The National Library of Scotland's vast map collection takes visitors
on a journey from imaginary continents of 700 years ago to the crisp
satellite images of today.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

Every map tells a story...though it may not necessarily be the story you think. Delve into one of the world's largest map collections -- the two million or so items held by the National Library of Scotland -- and you see how maps can reflect not just topography, but also the historical record, ranging from urban expansion and changing land use to fears of insurrection and even plans for invasion.

That potentially ambiguous term, "the lie of the land," may be more apt than we think, for maps can be economical with the truth, just as they can tell us what is there or even what might have been. In the introduction to their book Edinburgh: Mapping the City, Christopher Fleet and Daniel MacCannell suggest that "Maps can be read and understood at many levels, and part of their interest rests upon an admission that we may never completely understand them or fully capture their multiple meanings, especially as understood by people in earlier ages."

As Map Curator with the National Library of Scotland (NLS), Fleet has more insight than most into those "multiple meanings" and the importance and evolution of what he refers to as "the craft of cartography." The collections surrounding us at the NLS's map department, a striking, late-1980s glass and sandstone building rising from a corner site amid Edinburgh's residential south side, are, in effect, "a window into the history of Scotland."

Fleet reckons that the NLS map collection amounts to around two million -- "We've never counted them all" -- of which some two-thirds relate to the UK, with Scottish maps representing just less than a quarter of the whole collections. The building, currently reaching the end of a 12 million refurbishment (about $17 million) following major problems with its exterior cladding and roofing, also houses a major segment of the National Library's entire book and manuscript collections, the library's main public building being in the city centre.

"We boast that this is one of the ten largest map collections in the world in terms of volume," says Fleet.

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2018 issue of Scottish Life.

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Maps courtesy National Library of Scotland