Thursday, September 8, 2016

Fantastic Maps and Where to Find Them

Guest post by Lynn Davis.

As a decently experienced cartographer with work featured on this site and elsewhere, I like to give advice to potential cartographers—both of alternate history and not—who seek to create high-quality maps using programs like Inkscape or Photoshop (if you are using GIS, well, that’s a talk for another day).

One of the toughest parts of starting out using these programs to design maps is finding of the most essential tools in a burgeoning cartographer’s toolkit: basemaps. That is, unless you are able to freehand a perfect map of the world to make a derivative map, particularly for alternate history purposes, you are going to need maps that already exist which you can trace over and change into a piece of art of your own making.

To help with this, I will present to all you cartographers the top 5 best map resources around the internet. With these sites, your library of basemaps will quickly grow and, hopefully, so too will your body of work.

#1. Wikimedia
From old atlases to modern user-made data, the maps available on Wikimedia are perhaps the most diverse of any source. Like the rest of Wikipedia’s foundation, the point of the map database is to give people an open and free database to use, and any aspiring cartographer would be advised to take advantage of this fact.

The biggest disadvantage is that, like much of the Wikimedia site, the database can be difficult to navigate, particularly if you are looking for specific kinds of maps or maps from specific artists. If you’re willing to put up with the layout, however, it’s one of the best and most diverse of the examples given and well worth your time.

The database is available here to access. Make sure to click around categories and don’t be afraid to use the main Wikipedia site to poke around as well.

#2. University of Texas at Austin Perry-CastaƱeda Library Map Collection
Though just roughly 30% of the collection’s 250,000 maps are available online, the UT Austin map collection is an extremely valuable one. While Wikimedia and other sources tend to be a bit more random in what they choose to upload, due to problems of availability or varied sources, this map collection focuses more on specific atlases where each and every page is carefully cataloged and digitized for those who wish to view them.

The maps are available to directly download and in the public domain, which eases using them around the internet without having to worry too much about copyright. Most of the maps on here also tend to be clearer than those from the same atlas posted elsewhere. As a bonus, there are even some maps that I have simply not found elsewhere around the web, and for that alone it is extremely valuable.

Always continuing to grow as the collection receives money to digitize its records, this collection can be viewed here and is well worth checking out to find the basemap that is right for you.

#3. West Point Atlases
This source is one that is not only surprising, but also one that I have seen very few cartographers ever recommend, let alone use. Available as a courtesy of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the atlases available on their website to the public contain a wide array of subjects related to warfare, from ancient conflicts to the modern campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Naturally, being a military academy, it is hard to find maps not related to warfare; alternate history being what it is, however, that doesn’t tend to be a down side.

The one caveat I could give is that some of the maps, notably the larger-scale pages in the atlases, seem to be rather inaccurate and give a very simple idea of worldwide or continental political geography. That said, this drawback is more than made up for by the highly-detailed country and local maps available through the atlases that look like they have been pulled from the pages of official military atlases. Suffice to say, accuracy at the local level is extremely important to the military so you can count on these to be among the best you can find. In this way, they are perfect for maps of specific historical or alternate historical military campaigns that you may want to show.

To check out these atlases, follow the link here for more information.

#4. Alternate History Wiki
That is, the wiki site created specifically for and not to be confused with the independent alternate history wiki (yes, it’s confusing). This is a site that is simply not used as often as it should be. While admittedly even harder to navigate than the others, the AH wiki is a fine resource for maps that have been made or found by users of as part of a community-wide project assembled by the good people at the wiki.

Maps can include anything from the wonderfully-detailed “world-a” style pixel maps to larger, more complete blank maps that anyone can use. Taken from well over a decade of gathering from all across, this archive is one that is well worth using for anyone who wants to make specifically alternate history maps, as this site tends to cater toward it. However, it also provides a good amount of material for those who lean toward real life history and who want to make maps of their own.

It's a really fantastic resource that I, personally, would enjoy seeing get a bit more love from the cartographical community. You can find the map portion through here, though some searching around the site may be required to find exactly what you’re looking for.

#5 David Rumsey Map Collection
In many ways the Holy Grail of basemaps, the David Rumsey Map Collection is a cornucopia of maps for every possible or thinkable part of the world that were created anywhere from centuries ago to just a few decades beforehand. The collection has been painstakingly digitized over the course of two decades and resulted in a database of more than 71,000 maps of all sizes, shapes, and containing a wide variety of subjects.

Not only are the maps available for download in high quality image sizes, but they are also organized by artist, date published, and geographical location covered in the map that allows anyone looking for a specific kind of basemap for a specific map in mind to quickly find something that will suit them. This can range from a large-scale political map of the Holy Roman Empire to a travel map from the 1930s of the United States to a landform map of eastern China before the Second World War.

I would caution that, unlike the other sites, the Creative Commons license is a little more complicated, so it’d be a good idea to look that up before you dive in. That said, for those of us who seek to make the best maps we possibly can in Inkscape, Photoshop, GIMP, or other programs, this site is far and away the best I’ve used and I cannot recommend it enough. You can find the collection’s homepage here and from there dive right in.

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Lynn Davis is a cartographer and writer both of alternate history that can be found on her website,, and has been featured around the internet. In addition she runs a tumblr, Facebook page, and is funded by generous donations to her Patreon.

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