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Coming Soon: Zoom In to See Africa

Zooming in on old maps of Africa using geographic browsers such as Google Earth will soon become possible.

The Library of Congress received a $240,240 grant from a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, the Council on Library and Information Resources, to enhance the catalog of its collection of 125,000 sheets of maps of Africa. Some of the maps date back to the 1800s.

The library owns various kinds of map of Africa, such as large-scale mapping of urban areas, detailed topographic relief mapping, boundary maps of contested border areas and thematic mapping. But the library does not have detailed information for each sheet of map.

To improve its catalog, Morgan Cundiff, the LOC’s senior standards specialist, said the library would identify the title, publication date and geographic coordinates of each sheet and create its graphic image. “We want to make our rare collection available in a format that can be used by geographic browsers like Google Earth,” he said.

Google Earth shows satellite images of the Earth’s surface. Geographic coordinates are useful in comparing positions, calculating distances and navigating from one point to another.

The library chose to catalogue the maps of Africa first because that collection is small compared to other continents. “We want Africa to set a model for the rest of our work,” said John Herbert, chief of the LOC’s geography and map division.

Herbert said the LOC also wanted to help scholars and governments identify tribal boundaries, which has become a contentious issue in many African countries.

The LOC’s map division has 5.5 million sheets in its collection. It also has 75,000 atlases, 500 globes and globe gores (tapering pieces of paper that form a globe shape), 3,000 raised relief images and 20,000 digital files. Cataloguing of African maps will be completed in February 2012.

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