Using Maps as Primary Sources for Class: Windows to Historical Worldviews


15th Century rendering of Ptolemy’s Map of the World – photo credit: wikimedia commons

One of my favorite sources to spark discussion in class, especially in courses like the Atlantic World, British Empire, and American history, are historic maps.  What can maps tell us about how people at the time perceived the world around them?  What did the maps prioritize in their depictions of the world?  Who created them and what knowledge did they draw upon?  How did these views change over time?  One of the big benefits to using maps is that they are easily comparable between time periods for students.  And they allow students to easily grasp just how huge of an impact the era of explorations had on European conceptions of the world around them.


Babylonian Clay Tablet with Map, ca. 600-550 BC, now in the British Museum – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Another benefit of using maps as a basis for class discussion is that it makes clear to students that people in Columbus’s time did not believe that the world was flat (this seems to be a recurring misconception).

Claudius Ptolemy produced his descriptive atlas in Alexandria in the 2nd century, which was still considered one of the best sources for knowledge of world geography by the 15th century.  His atlas consisted of a huge list of descriptive coordinates for cities and other known locations, which were then interpreted by mapmakers as seen in the map at the top of the page.  As can be seen, Africa and India are distorted, the Mediterranean is overly large and depicted at the center of the map, and the areas within Greece and the Roman Empire are the most accurate.  Ptolemy also tended to fill empty spaces on the map with “theoretical conceptions,” rather than leaving unknown areas blank.

After the Library at Alexandria was destroyed, there was little advancement in cartography from the time of Ptolemy.  Medieval maps tended to place Jerusalem at the center of the known world, and represented both geographical knowledge of the physical route to Jerusalem as well as a symbolic route for salvation.  The Hereford Mappa Mundi, created ca. 1300 and housed at the Hereford Cathedral, is a T-O map with Jerusalem at the center, the East at the top, and Britain and Ireland on the bottom left.  Along with cities and towns, the map depicts Biblical events, plants and animals, fantastical creatures, and classical mythology.


Hereford Mappa Mundi – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Another one of the most notable medieval maps was that created in 1450 by the Venetian monk and cartographer, Fra Mauro (who also has a region of the moon named after him, where Apollo 13 was supposed to land).  His map was considered the most detailed and accurate of its time, including Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic.  And you can see that he oriented the map with the South at the top.


Fra Mauro Map, now at the Museo Correr in Venice – photo credit: wikimedia commons

And finally, we have the 1507 map created by Martin Waldseemüller, the first map to label the newly-discovered continent in the western hemisphere “America.”  This map includes knowledge about the coasts of Africa and India from recent explorations and discoveries, and includes a large ocean to the east of Asia: a very early depiction of the Pacific.  But the aspect which students are most responsive to is the narrow strip of land encompassing all that was known at the time about North and South America.  You can see the detailed east coast and Caribbean, and the hazier depiction of land to the west.


Waldseemüller Map, Universalis Cosmographia, now housed in the Library of Congress – photo credit: Library of Congress

Obviously there are many more historical maps that could be used as examples.  But overall, I can’t say enough about how well students respond to maps such as these as the basis for jump-starting class discussion, having students make discoveries that you might not have noticed yourself, and, even if this might all seem rather perfunctory, I find them very fun discussions both as an instructor and for students to help understand how Europeans of different eras envisaged the world around them.

  • See also: Simon Garfield, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (New York: Gotham, 2013).

Researching at the Library of Congress

Readers' Entrance, Jefferson Building - photo credit: L. Flewelling

Readers’ Entrance, Jefferson Building – photo credit: L. Flewelling

My experience researching at the Library of Congress is fairly extensive and I was most recently there this past February.  I’ve used the Main Reading Room, Newspaper & Current Periodical Room, Geography & Map Reading Room, and Microform Reading Room over the past few years.  The experience there can be highly dependent on the individual.  It may depend on who you come into contact with in the library and certainly which reading room you are using.  Overall, though, I think my experiences can be helpful for people preparing to go to the Library of Congress for the first time.

LOC Layout: Maps and Floor Plans

The main building at the Library of Congress is the Jefferson Building.  Researchers enter under the stairs pictured above.  The Madison and Adams buildings are across the street.  They are all connected through a tunnel system.

Reader Registration: LOC Reader Registration Website

The Reader Registration Station is in the Madison Building and you can pre-register online before going there in person to get your picture taken and card printed out.  I’ve also had to renew my card.  Both times the process was straightforward and even though you might have to wait in line for a few minutes it goes quickly.  They’ll also answer any basic questions about directions around the buildings etc for your first visit.

Accessing the Reading Rooms: List of Reading Rooms

It’s most helpful to determine beforehand which reading room you’ll need by looking up your materials in the catalog.  The experience in each of the separate reading rooms is completely different so you just have to go to that room and ask at the information desk how things work in that area if you’re not sure.

For the main reading room, leave your belongings at the cloakroom desk by the main entrance to the Jefferson Building (or the downstairs cloakroom depending on what time of day it is – see signs posted at main cloakroom desk).  Then you walk to the back of the entrance hall and wind your way along the hallways to the elevator, go up a floor, and you’re right outside the main reading room and the microfilm room.  Honestly, it is pretty easy to get turned around.  Once while attempting to leave I had security guards yell at me through a closed door not to go that direction, which was a strange experience to say the least.

If you’re going from the Madison Building to the Jefferson Building, you can avoid going through security a second time by crossing through the tunnels in the basement.  They also have a Dunkin Donuts and Subway down there if you need a food break.

Accessing Your Materials:

Once you have your card you can order materials before you go to the library for the day for some of the reading rooms.  Others you need to fill out a slip in person.  The delivery times can vary greatly and may take more than a day.

If you’re tight on time, I highly recommend emailing ask a librarian before you go to see if you’ll be able to access your materials.  Actually I would recommend doing that even if you think you have a lot of time.  My main caution would be to not rely on the catalog to tell if materials are going to be available (for historic materials particularly, rather than secondary sources).  For example, I discovered some interesting materials on the last day of a trip one January, and decided to plan another trip to be able to work with those particular materials more thoroughly.  I came back the next May assuming I would be able to order them as before, but as it turned out those materials had been dinged for preservation when I had looked at them previously.  There was no way to access them.

Luckily there were other materials that I could work with to fill my time and I had the opportunity to return a few months later.  This time I emailed with a librarian and had her assurances that my materials would be available.  I printed out her email, which was useful when I was again told that my materials were in preservation after ordering them through the online system.  Luckily one of the people working at the main desk in the reading room was able to track everything down, but only because she had the name of the librarian I had emailed with and was able to talk to her personally.

Historic newspapers are one type of material where it is especially important to talk to someone about what is available because the date listing in the online catalog seems to generally be for the whole run of the newspaper, not necessarily what the library actually holds.

The Main Reading Room:

The Main Reading Room is gorgeous and I would recommend going on the tour of the Jefferson Building even if you are not researching there.  Materials that you order online will be delivered to the desk you have selected or to the main desk.  You can ask for permission to take pictures of the materials (you aren’t supposed to take pictures of the actual reading room though).  Overall the reference librarians and support staff are helpful, but are especially so if you can be specific about what you are looking for and as prepared as possible ahead of time.

Amazingly extensive collections allowing you to stumble upon things you’ve never heard of before; contrasting the lovely Main Reading Room with the sparse winding basement tunnels and Dunkin Donuts; all that plus you can wander around the outside of the Capitol, Supreme Court, and the US Botanic Garden when you want to take a study break.


Jefferson Building – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Resource Digitization: The Blogs

We all benefit from the efforts of libraries, archives, museum, and government bodies to organise, catalogue, and digitise documents and collections, but it can be very hard to keep up with what’s online! A collection you searched for which you were disappointed to find as only available on microform through inter-library loan only a few months ago might now be accessible from your living room. In this era of digitisation, what’s the best way to keep on top of what sources are coming online?

Following the blogs of libraries and archives that hold the types of material and specific collections you are typically interested in, especially those with government funding who are more likely to be able to devote people, money, and resources necessary to digitise and host online collections, is a great way to start.

For example, while I was conducting some genealogical research, I found evidence that a land petition of my 6x great-grandfather, a United Empire Loyalist, was in the Haldimand Papers. I prefer working with full-text primary sources rather than printed summaries or indexes, but the original papers were in the British Library and microfilm copies were available in Canada but nowhere near where I was living. I took note of how to find them and stored that away for another day. A few months later Library and Archives Canada blogged about their latest digitisation efforts and amazingly the Haldimand Papers was on the list! And that’s when I realised that these blogs can valuable tools for furthering one’s research.

It seems that most university libraries nowadays have one or more blogs, so why not Google your favourite library + blog and see what’s on offer. To get you started, here’s a list of some great blogs from libraries and archives that reflect upon the digitisation of resources and material of interest to historians of British and Irish global history. Feel free to let us know your favourites in the comments below!