Finding old maps fascinating – cooperation project to improve findability of Finnish maps

Old maps of Finland are now even easier to find online. The National Library participated in a project with the National Land Survey of Finland (NLS) to improve the findability and searchability of old Finnish maps.

Led by Antti Jakobson, the work in the project also included compiling map catalogues indicating which maps and map series exist and where to find them. The openly available catalogues can help researchers, historians and hobbyists find the maps they need. Finnish maps are national treasures, and it is important that they are preserved and made available to the public.

Finland became a part of the map of Europe in the late 15th century. The National Library has a vast map collection, but the project report proved that the findability of the maps is still a challenge, as there is a great deal of metadata work to be done. Some of the old maps have not been digitised.

National Library’s map collections span from the 16th century to present day

“The map collection in the National Collection features material from the 16th century until the present day, and contains approximately 90,000 map sheets. The oldest sheets include general maps printed abroad as well as maps of Finland from the 17th century,” explains Johanna Lilja, service director. The National Library has received deposit copies of maps since the early 19th century, and the collection has been further expanded through donations and acquisitions. In addition to the maps in the National Collection, the National Library’s collections feature the maps of A.E. Nordenskiöld, which have been entered into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, and the map collections of the Slavonic Library. 

Most of the physical maps are intended for use only in the Special Collections Reading Room, but a representative sample of the National Library’s map collection has been digitised and made available in the Doria online service and through the Finna search portal, which also features a considerable number of maps from other institutions.

“The Finna.fi search portal, which compiles Finnish cultural and academic resources together, currently has nearly 9,000 maps which are openly available online. Thanks to the open-source interface, the maps may be exported to other platforms. Metadata, particularly precise location data and permanent identifiers, are of crucial importance to ensure reliable findability of the resources,” says Susanna Eklund, service designer at the National Library.

More digitisation and more precise metadata

The National Library is currently drafting its digitisation plan for 2021–2024, and will consider the concern regarding the findability of maps in the process. However, digitised material cannot be found online if it has insufficient metadata. “One way to boost the findability of maps and make the identification of the connections between them more effective is to use machine-readable ontologies.  Multi-lingual ontologies enable data to be found across language barriers and support the development of new search applications,” explains Mikko Lappalainen who is a National Library head of development specialising in metadata.

“I hope that this project report will lead to an extensive programme to further improve the findability and usability of old maps. There is certainly demand for it, both in Finland and elsewhere,” says Tomi Ahoranta, development manager at the National Archives of Finland.