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Modern Topographic Mapping

The Map Library has extensive holdings of modern topographic mapping. Most is acquired directly from the Ministry of Defence, which disposes of many of its maps to the Library as soon as they cease to be current. It therefore includes mapping that is not commercially available. The Map Library also purchases topographic mapping from around the world. Due to historical acquisitions policies, however, coverage is not complete. Maps staff can advise on other libraries or map dealers for material not held at the British Library.

Quality and scale of available modern mapping varies considerably throughout the world; for many countries, detailed mapping is secret and very difficult to acquire. In some instances, it may be necessary to make a compromise between the degree of detail required and the date of the map; there may be large scale (detailed) mapping available which has not been updated for 30 or 40 years, or smaller scale more recent mapping. This applies particularly to countries that are former European colonies.

Because a great deal of the Library's topographic mapping was deposited by the Ministry of Defence, there are good holdings of military maps from World Wars I and II. These include maps of the trenches, maps issued to troops involved in the Normandy landings on D-Day, silk maps which pilots carried concealed in their clothing in case they were shot down, and the invasion packs for most European countries prepared by the Germans and subsequently captured by the Allies. Maps of eastern Europe from wartime and the pre-war period are often used now by people whose families emigrated from these areas and who are now trying to trace their family's history. 

The Ministry of Defence archive of UK military mapping is also being deposited at the British Library. This is being deposited under special instruments of the Public Record Act as part of a tripartite agreement between the Public Record Office (now National Archives), the Ministry of Defence and the British Library.The mapping was produced by the War Office and its successors, and includes some joint publications with foreign governments. The archive broadly covers the period 1880-1970. Many interesting maps of all different kinds are included in this collection particularly from the Second World War: D-Day beach landing defence maps, zone maps showing German and other cities vulnerability to high explosive and incendiary bombing, Bomber Command maps of Europe, troop dispositions and operation maps and many more. Earlier conflicts form part of this collection such as the Boer War.

The Map Library has acquired topographic maps produced by the Soviet General staff since before the breakdown of the USSR. Using both existing mapping and spy satellites for information, the Soviet military produced detailed maps of most of the world, often showing features such as defence installations not included on other maps. This collection includes coverage of most of Europe, including all of the former Soviet Union, all of Asia, and about seventy five per cent of Africa at 1:200 000. It also includes coverage of the UK at 1:1 000 000, 1:500 000, 1:200 000 1:100 000 and 1:50 000 (southeastern England only), and plans for dozens of UK cities at 1:10 000. We have also been able to acquire commercial mapping of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics which was previously unavailable.

Other areas of particular interest in current acquisitions include:

  • Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where we have special arrangements in place due to these countries' ties with Britain
  • Central and South America, as these areas were not collected by MoD and thus little was passed to us
  • The United States, where there were special arrangements in place for many years, thus providing us with extensive collections of topographic mapping and nautical charts; we also purchase city street plans and atlases
  • areas of travel interest worldwide, especially as good travel maps for many places are the best current mapping available
  • South Asia, to support research using India Office and Records
  • China, Central Asia and Southeast Asia, where most mapping has been previously unavailable
  • geological and other scientific mapping worldwide

Using topographic maps can sometimes be complicated. To begin with, not every place that appears on a map will be listed in the catalogue. For instance, if you are looking for a small village in Italy, its name will probably not appear on the catalogue. However, we have several detailed map series covering Italy. The catalogue will tell you what map series we hold, and then you will probably need to use the graphic index to identify the required sheet within the series to show your village. We also collect gazetteers (place name indexes) to help locate towns and geographic features worldwide. Staff will be able to help you when you visit.

Atlases are also often excellent sources for modern mapping. We acquire national atlases of countries wherever they are available, as well as road atlases for countries wherever possible and street atlases for all major cities.

Map Library also receives the output of UK cartographic publishers via Legal Deposit (copyright). Because some of the world's greatest cartographic publishers are British, maps received on Copyright Deposit cover much more than the British Isles. We have tourist maps and maps and atlases for many parts of the world (particularly for Europe), as well as Admiralty Charts, whose coverage is international.

Maps in APAC (Asia , Pacific and African Collections)

The Map Library has sizeable collections of early Chinese and Japanese maps, including the earliest surviving Chinese terrestrial globe. However, much of the Library's Oriental mapping is held in the Asia , Pacific and Africa Collections. They include celestial and terrestrial maps, both printed and manuscript, dating back to the tenth century (amongst them the earliest known star chart). The India Office records contain important cartographic material of interest to anyone studying the colonial history of India or adjacent countries. This includes the earliest official mapping of India from the late eighteenth century through 1947, as well as earlier sketch maps found amongst the administrative records of the East India Company - an unparalled archive of pre-1947 topographic maps of India and other South Asian countries. Maps in non-Roman scripts are not usually included in Explore the British Library.

APAC pages


  • Omni Resources An American company based in North Carolina with a large catalogue of modern mapping of most places in the world.
  • MapLink Based in California, stocks maps of most areas of the world, particularly the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Central and South America.
  • East View CartographicMaps from around the world. Specialise in Soviet/Russian mapping.
  • Internationales Landkartenhaus (ILH) Map dealers based in Stuttgart.
  • International Map Industry Association The International Map Industry Association (IMIA) is the foremost worldwide organization of the mapping, geospatial and geographic information industry. Map publishers and dealers can be searched for by country on the site.
  • Stanfords Established in 1853, Stanfords is the UK's leading specialist retailer of maps, travel books and other travel accessories.
  • The Map Shop A UK dealer with a large catalogue of British and international mapping.
  • Soviet Military Topographic Map Sets at the University of California  Stanford. Digital indices for many 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 sets of Soviet topos.
  • National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) gazetteer (US) Database of 4 million geographical features excluding the United States and Antarctica. For the latter go to:
  • US Geological Survey.
  • Expedia maps. Small scale road maps of the UK, Europe and USA and place search. Intersection and address for USA only.
  • PC Graphics Can supply plans of any UK towns and most cities worldwide. Also other types of mapping and guides.
  • Mapblast Can find city and street locations worldwide.
  • Maps Worldwide Sell maps etc. from all over the world.
  • Multimap Features include search for locations on maps to 1:10,000 scale and aerial photographs of London and other cities in UK to 1:1000 scale. Supplies maps of any scale for websites. Also travel directions, maps for businesses and map of the world.

Further reading

  • Bohme, Rolf, Inventory of world topographic mapping. International Cartographic Association, 1989-93. 3 vols.
  • Perkins, C.R. and Parry R.B., World mapping today. Second Edition. Bowker-Saur, 2000 - An excellent guide to series mapping divided by country.
  • Perkins, C.R. and Parry R.B. (eds.). Information sources in cartography. Bowker-Saur, 1989.