31 August 2023

Machines Reading Maps Tool

A fun new tool from the David Rumsey Map Collection was released yesterday: Machines Reading Maps. It presents an interesting new way to search for our ancestral colonies on historical maps within the David Rumsey collection. 

If you have seen my presentation “Time Travel Using Historical Maps,”* you may recall that I showed how to search the David Rumsey Map Collection using a tool called MapRankSearch. In it, we search the entire collection for a current place name (or something near a colony that no longer exists) and were presented with maps showing that location. And then we searched by coordinates to find it on the map results. Now you can search David Rumsey using a new tool, Machines Reading Maps which searches for the text that actually appears on the maps

It was only a matter of time before this happened. If you are familiar with live-text on Mac OS—where any text in a screenshot is clickable, copyable, and links are live—it’s the same idea. The DR team sent their computers off to scrape up all the words it can find on maps in their collection and made them searchable. It’s a cool new way to search for places. You can contribute as well. The link to the tool guide is here

Caveat (of course): As a researcher, you still need to evaluate every map from the search results to make sure it is the location you’re looking for and not another location with the same name. Remember that it is only searching for a name without any other context. Some unique German colony names yield pretty good results. But we all know Germans like to reuse place names wherever they go. For colony names that are common, like my ever-favorite example of Neudorf, you are better off using MapRankSearch, unless you just want a cool graphic with a lot of Neudorfs on it (see below). While it picks up and deals with some special characters, like umlauts, it does not pick up spelling variations. So, you will need to do searches for each spelling variation or name of a place if it had multiple names over time. For example, searching for Strassburg will yield different results than Strasburg and different still from Strasbourg. If you are a Kutschurgan Strassburger, you know very well that these are the spellings of three different places in different countries of your (and my) ancestors. But...they may be spelled “incorrectly” on a map. A French map of the Russian Empire, for example, may use the French spelling instead of the German spelling. Also, historically, there are many creative spellings used on maps. 

There are more accurate ways of searching for your ancestral colonies on historical maps (God forbid what’s going to start showing up on Facebook now) and more relevant map collections to the German colonies in Russia, but this one admittedly is tons of fun and I invite you to while away your Labor Day weekend playing with this. 

Here are some examples. Click on the collection image below to run the search on David Rumsey, or go directly to the website and start searching. You never know what you might find. 

*I will be recording my presentation “Time Travel Using Historical Maps” and putting it on this project’s YouTube channel soon.

Happy searching!

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