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Discover how maps can help your research

We welcome everyone who wants to do research, for academic, public policy, personal or commercial purposes.

Maps show much more than how to get from here to there. Whether for study, profit or play, maps illustrate all sorts of information as it appears on the ground. With access to almost four and a half million maps, our Maps Reading Room is one of the best places on earth to discover the wide-ranging uses of maps.

Our earliest map appears on a coin made in the Roman Empire and our latest appears as pixels on a computer screen. In between we have the most complete set of Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain, the grand collection of an 18th-century king who loved maps, an unrivalled archive of military mapping, a world-class collection on the history of cartography, secret maps made by the Soviet army as well as the British government, and a book that stands taller than the average person.


Mosaicked satellite image of Europe

Mosaicked satellite image of Europe


Business planning requires maps. Insurance plans have the edge over Ordnance Survey maps for identifying the names of shops on a High Street. Older Ordnance Survey maps can supply developers with useful information on previous uses and possible contamination of sites. Maps can show potential restrictions in conservation areas, transport routes, population centres and the whereabouts of likely markets and suppliers.


Topographic views, showing a building, town or landscape, are often beautiful in their own right as works of art. As well as illustrating the skill of their creator, they also provide important windows into the past before photography was born. Views can provide an architectural history of buildings which no longer exist or have been changed, and give a more precise picture of a location than may be available in a painting or sketch. Dating from the late fifteenth century and covering the whole world, the British Library holds a vast and unrivalled collection of views of towns, houses and landscapes as seen by artists, travellers and soldiers.

Family history

Detail of Ordnance Surveyor's Drawing, No. 152

Detail of Ordnance Surveyor's Drawing, No. 152 © The British Library Board


Interested in the place where your ancestors lived? Old maps and other materials can give you an idea of what it was like at the time. In addition, if you have a document showing a place name that's changed and which can't be identified on modern maps, gazetteers and old maps can help locate it for you, whether it's a street somewhere in London or a village somewhere in Eastern Europe. Large scale Ordnance Survey maps and town plans from the mid-nineteenth century give amazing amounts of detail for the British Isles, just as maps of Europe can help identify the town your grandfather described as being a day's wagon ride from market.


Road atlases and street maps are amongst the most common possessions in today's world. But do you also use maps to plan your trip, investigate new possibilities, or follow along with David Attenborough or Michael Palin's latest travels? Maps and atlases produced for tourists provide a wealth of information on local attractions, from statues to museums to parks and recreational facilities, often with contact information and illustrations. Several map publishers now specialise in adventure destinations, and often produce the most detailed and up-to-date maps for places where official mapping is hard to come by, while for some remote places older government or military mapping is still the best available. Guidance to websites that provide route mapping and town plans internationally is also available.

Science and the environment

From USGS Global GIS digital database

From USGS Global GIS digital database


While geology has been mapped for two centuries, use of maps to convey scientific information is a modern invention. Maps can show what plants cover the land, where rivers get their water, where people get their food, and how quickly glaciers are melting. Maps of natural vegetation, eco-regions, pollution, climate zones or population trends can tell a vivid story.


Maps serve a wide variety of recreational purposes whether you are thinking of hiking in the Alps or sightseeing in a city at home or abroad. The following are just some of the activities for which map coverage exists: walking trips, driving holidays, skiing, camping, angling and sailing. These useful materials can be used alone or as supplements to travel guides and instructional books located elsewhere in the British Library, and can help you find out how to keep on the right track!

Military history

Belgium-Franco front

Belgium-Franco front © The British Library Board


British military activities have a long history and maps have played a crucial role in military campaigns. We hold an important historical archive of British military mapping from the late 19th century to the second half of the 20th century. This includes material relating to D-Day, World War II aerial bombing campaigns, the Boer War and the Cold War. This archive complements our extensive holdings of maps produced for military purposes throughout history and across the globe, including a large collection of World War I trench maps.


Boundary information is a basic feature of mapmaking, whether it represents the boundaries between two countries or between your neighbour's land and your own. For many years, maps were used-inappropriately in some cases-to increase a country's land holdings by wishful drawing of the border, and even into the late twentieth century some maps appear unfinished because a government doesn't want to put its boundary in writing in hopes of extending it. Locally, land boundaries can determine who has the right to cut down a tree or who has to pay for a needed improvement, and a crucial use of Ordnance Survey maps regards footpaths, rights of way and access lands.

Local History

Detail of Oliver Twist's journey

Detail of Oliver Twist's journey © The British Library Board


You can trace the history of your town or village using early large scale county maps, estate maps and Ordnance Survey town plans. Maps can show when your house was built, where your grandfather went to school or what occupied the local housing estate before it was there. You can research local industries using fire insurance plans and see the impact of urbanisation and transport through maps.


Making sense of the past requires maps. Maps produced around the time of a historical event can be contrasted with maps produced much later. Historical maps and atlases are often the best way of making sense of an ancient city's layout or in tracing the rise and fall of an empire as the boundaries change over the centuries. Examining old maps not only gives us insights into how the world was, but, used carefully, gives us equally valuable insight into how the cartographer hoped his contemporaries would see the world.

Creative Arts

Image derived from digital data of Hennepin County, MN

Image derived from digital data of Hennepin County, MN


Views and maps are works of art in their own right, but they can also be fruitful sources of inspiration. Artists such as Bruce McLean, Tom Phillips, Grayson Perry, and Simon Patterson have incorporated maps in their work, and land artists like Ian Hamilton Finlay, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton have made location their central theme. Writers and film makers like Peter Ackroyd or Iain Sinclair have also found the sense of place a powerful subject, and many others use maps to research and inspire their works of art. Why not see where research into a particular area takes you?