Do research or teach with the Maps Collection of VU Amsterdam

The possibilities and pitfalls of old maps as a source of research.

01/12/2021 | 4:55 PM

‘Old maps are important source material for the study of architectural history. They provide insight into spatial developments over time,’ says VU PhD student Minke Walda. She asked curator Reinout Klaarenbeek of the Library’s Maps Collection to give a guest lecture for the MA Seminar Architecture on the possibilities and pitfalls of old maps as a research source. Georeferencer_Minke_Reinout-KLEIN

During the lecture, the students were also introduced to georeferencing pre-1900 maps in the VU Maps Collection. That led to enthusiastic reactions. Walda: ‘If you are doing research with old maps, it is very important to ask yourself what the purpose of each map was and how accurate the map is. In the past, there were fewer technical aids, which made geometrically precise measurements a costly and sometimes difficult act.’ But there are other reasons why old maps are not always reliable. In the 17th and 18th centuries, city maps were also seen and used as an expression of urban pride. Certain elements on the map might be idealised or streets drawn wider than they actually were. Georeferencing provides insight into how geometrically correct the old maps are. And it also reveals spatial developments over time.’

Prints of older copper plates
‘From the end of the 16th century, town atlases became popular as a collector's item for wealthy citizens and nobles. City councils also ordered their own copies. As a result, producing and trading in city maps took off. However, these maps were by no means always based on new measurements. Because there was no real copyright yet, maps were frequently copied or printed from older copper plates. So in many cases the map depicted a situation from some time before the actual date of publication.’

Cities were rarely actually measured
The famous Dutch town atlas ‘Toonneel der Steden’ (of which there is a facsimile in the Library’s Maps Collection) was made in 1649 by Amsterdam map maker Joan Blaeu. Blaeu hardly ever measured cities himself. Instead, he asked city councils for information and collected and edited existing maps. As a result, some of his maps are very accurate, others rather less so.’

Map comparison with Historical GIS
Klaarenbeek and Walda are now supervising a student that does an internship at VU Library’s Map Collection, connected to the PhD research of Walda. ‘We are comparing town plans from the 17th century when Dutch cities flourished with the first land registry maps from 1832. After the 1672 Disaster Year, the economy in many cities in Holland collapsed and the population shrank. This led to the renovation, conversion and demolition of private homes and warehouses. These land registry maps show the situation at the end of that period of demographic and economic stagnation and decline.’

Transformation maps
‘In this research we are using HisGIS, which is short for Historical Geographical Information System. It is based on the cities as depicted on the maps in the oldest land register (1832), which we are georeferencing for this purpose. The 17th century maps are also processed in the GIS. Comparing these two time layers yields what are called ‘transformation maps’. In GIS you can add all manner of additional historical information and visualise it on the map. We may add other historical sources such as building permits to the GIS at a later stage. In this way we can visualise who lived in a property or when it was altered or demolished.’

Spatial transformation of shrinking cities
Minke Walda is doing a PhD at VU Amsterdam on the spatial transformation of a number of shrinking cities in Holland in the long eighteenth century. She investigates the spatial strategies developed by property owners, building contractors and urban authorities in response to the shrinkage, which ranged from the repurposing of buildings and greening to the regulation of demolition in order to prevent deterioration of the cityscape.

Cartographic literature from the VU Maps Collection
‘I am doing a comparative analysis of the seven main shrinking cities in the former province of Holland: Leiden, Haarlem, Delft, Gouda, Hoorn, Enkhuizen and Alkmaar. For this, I use maps from the city and regional archives and from the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency. And I often study cartographic literature in the VU Maps Collection. For me, the collaboration with the University Library is very valuable. It is great to be able to inspire one another and exchange knowledge.’

Would you like to help us to georeference old maps?
Would you also like to georeference maps in the VU collection? Your help is most welcome! All pre-1900 maps in the Maps Collection have been digitised. You can view them in the Image Bank. Georeferencing them makes them easier to find and use for educational and research purposes.

Read how it works and which maps you can work on.

Guest lectures, internships and ideas for your thesis
Would you also like to apply for a guest lecture, do an inernship or write a thesis/paper on a subject from the Maps Collection?
Contact Reinout Klaarenbeek : or +31 20 59 85068