‘By georeferencing old maps, you can see how countries and cities have changed’

As a volunteer, Fons Verhaegen has already georeferenced about 100 maps in the VU Map Collection. This makes the maps easier to use for research. Will you help?

02/22/2021 | 2:32 PM

Fons Verhaegen is one of the nearly one hundred volunteers who are helping to make old maps in the VU Map Collection more accessible and easier to use in research. He loves old maps. And he enjoys contributing to making the Map Collection more accessible to students and the general public. He has already georeferenced close to one hundred maps! FonsVerhaegenMetKaartKlein

What does georeferencing actually involve?
‘You compare digitised old maps with a new map by superimposing the old map on the new one as accurately as possible. Using a web application you pick reference points where the maps correspond. You have to match at least five locations on the old map to their position on the modern map.’

By assigning coordinates to the historical maps, you can search collections via an interactive map. Georeferenced maps are accessed in geoweb viewers, which allow you to zoom into a particular area and get all (unlocked) maps for that area. All georeferenced old maps in the Maps Collection of Vrije Universiteit can be viewed via Geosearch on VU Geoplaza.

What are the benefits of georeferencing?
‘By georeferencing old maps you get a clear picture of how countries, villages or cities have changed over time (sometimes one hundred years or more); whether and how they have grown, and how borders and names have changed. Sometimes a road can be traced back to the 17th century and the route is still the same, but over the years it has changed first from a dirt road to a paved road, and finally to a motorway.’

How did you get the idea to participate in this crowdfunding project?
‘At a flea market I bought some old copies of the magazine Caert-Thresoor (the Dutch journal for the history of cartography). I liked it so much that I took out a subscription. In the autumn, I read an appeal in Caert-Thresoor to help georeference the old maps of VU Amsterdam. I enjoy doing this kind of voluntary work. After my retirement, I first helped as a volunteer to make the Leiden notary archives and the tax records of the Noord-Hollands Archief accessible online. I have always been interested in how old maps were made, so I love doing this work. Not least because it is helpful to other people.’

Is georeferencing difficult?
‘Since December, I have georeferenced about one hundred maps. Dutch maps, provincial maps, city maps and maps of the Dutch East Indies. It is usually not so hard. Only the series of maps of Borneo [Residentie Westerafdeeling Borneo, a road and river map] that I did was difficult. There are not many towns and villages there, and names have often changed. Right now, I am working on a map of Central Europe [W. Liebenow's Special-Karte von Mittel-Europa], the old Habsburg Empire. From that map, it is very difficult to find corresponding points on modern maps. The towns used to have very different names and the country borders were different. It is a fascinating historical puzzle.’

You were one of the volunteers who won a print of a map of your choice from the VU Map Collection. Why did you choose this one?
‘It shows how far the borders of the Seventeen Dutch Provinces in the 18th century extended [New map of the XVII Dutch provinces]. You can see that they included areas that now belong to northern France or Germany. I am definitely going to frame the map. And as long as there are still VU maps to be georeferenced, I will keep going!’ Kaart17ProvincienKlein

Would you like to help us to georeference old maps?
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. Here, you can read how it works and which maps you can work on.

Help georeferencing the old maps in the VU Map Collection

Do you want to do an internship or write a thesis or paper about old maps?
In this interview with Map Curator Reinout Klaarenbeek (Phone: +31 20 59 85068) and PhD student Minke Walda you can read about the possibilities.

Do research or teach with Old Maps