Pics Or It Didn’t Happen – Part III

Digitizing Maps: Availability vs. Authenticity?

In the third and final part of our editorial, we will engage with the opportunities and challenges of the digitization of historical maps. Since we decided to publish the maps of Africa and Asia of the Perthes Collection online, this short article ends with our reasoning of their benefits, and how the presentation of the digitized material and the outline of the project contribute to them.

The digitization of collections is a global trend. It has not only changed research itself fundamentally but it has also been the subject of extensive research itself. Librarians digitizing historic sources as well as researchers working with digital copies publish their experiences and reasonings, wondering what really changes once collections are digitally available? Generally, there is academic consensus on this point: A lot changes.

Digital reproductions of historical material are different from the objects they represent; hence they are mostly referred to as ‘digital surrogates’ to emphasize this difference to the original items (Conway 2015). Digital surrogates present specific opportunities but also certain risks to researchers. This specific dynamic stems from their ‘digital materiality’ meaning the combination of the data that comprises the surrogate and the digital context/repository it is embedded in. The term ‘data’ in this definition encompasses not only the actual file of the surrogate and its technical data but also the bibliographical metadata, which describes the surrogate (van Lit 2020).

The Surrogate Itself

Work in progress for a map of Stieler’s Hand-Atlas. Please notice the blank space cut into the map…
Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection), SPK 40.07 A (01), Bl. 13 (CC BY-SA 4.0).


… which is designed for a cut-out piece from another map, which is pictured here.
Gotha Research Library, Perthes Collection, SPK 40.07 A (01), Bl. 14 (CC BY-SA 4.0).


Here both maps are combined to create an updated version.
Gotha Research Library (Perthes Collection), SPK 40.07 A (01), Bl. 13 – 14 Gesamtkarte
(CC BY-SA 4.0).


In the Perthes Collection, processes of work and map creation are observable through the materiality of maps. Maps were cut apart and reassembled; cartographers exercised a stunning nonchalance when updating their work. These pragmatic approaches are worthy of further study and therefore constitute a case in point for the continuing importance of research into the material objects themselves. In the illustrations above, you will notice that one part of the map is removable – and was actually added from another map, to update the new version. But that is not the only alteration you can observe: On the back of the map, you will notice that another part was glued to the map (see below). The cut-outs and alterations were so well-fitted and carefully done that they are hard to recognize when working with a scan of the map alone rather than with the material item.

back of a map, a piece of paper has been visibly glued to it

The back of the map (shown above) indicates even another alteration of the material, which is easily overlooked on the front.

As indicated by these observations, handling digital resources instead of material objects can be deeply misleading, especially in the case of historical cartography. Formats of individual maps vary widely and have implications for their everyday use. The actual format and material of a map, the traces of its use during the decades and centuries, and which kind of printing technique was used (i.e. whether it was hand-coloured or not) – all these characteristics are more difficult to figure out on a surrogate unless they are given in the descriptive metadata.

On the other hand, surrogates with data of sufficiently high quality allow new research methods and insights. Whole bodies of text can be searched for word clusters, allowing new ways to research huge volumes of data. But even when talking about visual material, digital resources offer exciting possibilities through their own specific qualities: Since they allow zoom functions, some insights that can be gained from researching a high-quality digital surrogate are impossible to achieve through work on the original. In addition, Jasmine Burns draws attention to the fact that the material object itself may age and change over time. Here, the surrogate itself can be functional in conserving a certain stage of the object’s ageing (Burns 2017).

Researching and Quoting Digital Surrogates: A Word of Caution

When Evyn Kropf investigated attitudes among visitors of digitized collections toward researching the original manuscripts, she found out that while scholars experienced in researching materiality were aware of the limitations of researching surrogates, most others were not. It seems that using digital surrogates effectively also marginalises materiality and encourages focussing on textual features of objects. While metadata can help to bring some of the material aspects of the original items to the foreground, researchers need to be aware of the importance of materiality despite the accessibility of digital resources (Kropf 2017).

Another point has been raised by Cornelis van Lit, who draws attention to referencing practices related to digital surrogates. While most repositories offer guides on how to quote their collections, many researchers refrain from quoting the actual digitized material they used and quote the original item instead. Since we are already aware of the different results both media could achieve, this practice can clearly be deeply misleading. It stems not only from comfort and ease of use but most likely also from the stigmatisation of the surrogate compared to the original. Adherence to scientific referencing conventions that take the quality of surrogates and their technical data into account could restore the transparency of research and, over time, remove the stigma attached to the surrogate (van Lit 2020).

Available 24/7, Free of Charge? The Digital Repository

The availability of digitized collections is one of the strongest arguments for digitization and the main motivation behind our project Cartographies of Africa and Asia. The availability of digitized collections fits neatly with the needs of present-day academia: 24/7 availability worldwide enables researchers to access a growing number of sources from the comfort of their desks. This new availability could help respond to needs beyond just those of the ever-more-demanding academic workplace. Surrogates become available to a global community of researchers, often free of charge. This may also contribute to the genuine democratisation of source material availability and thereby even help in decolonising the archive.

On the other hand, digitization is also very expensive, and the involvement of commercial actors is already threatening hard-won gains in terms of availability. Some digital resources fall under copyright and are linked to subscription models. In this expanding market, availability might also decrease for researchers who don’t have access to the surrogates, since the original often also becomes less accessible as soon as digital copies are made available.

These aspects point to matters related to the repositories in which digitized materials are made available. In general, project-funded digitization is regarded as problematic, since curation of digital surrogates often ceases as soon as funding dries up. Some projects end with tiny repositories which are no longer supported and updated. Also, smaller projects often have the problem of not communicating their digital collections sufficiently. The simple fact that digital collections exist does not mean they are easy to find online.

Fortunately, our long-standing cooperation with the Thuringian University and State Library Jena (Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek, ThULB) allows us to avoid some of the aforementioned issues. Via the Digital Historical Library Erfurt/Gotha hosted by ThULB, we place the digital surrogates of our project within a larger framework, in which they are presented in proximity to other local collections and kept in a curated environment that is continuously being cared for. Making our maps available under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0 and thereby taking a stand against pay for access and subscription models is important to us. Additionally, we are a proud member of the NFDI4Memory consortium for a national research data infrastructure, which aims to identify best practices of digitization efforts and data management for the historical sciences.

Last but not least, we take care to communicate our efforts – this blog being a case in point – to make our digitization project known and therefore available in a more practical sense. While we are currently only starting the digitization process, in the coming months, more and more of our maps will be available via the DHB Erfurt/Gotha. Please check on this blog while we will continue to share our journey with you!


Burns, Jasmine, The Aura of Materiality. Digital Surrogacy and the Preservation of Photographic Archives. In: Art Documentation, Vol. 36 (2017), pp. 1–8.

Conway, Paul, Digital Transformations and the Archival Nature of Surrogates. In: Archival Science, Vol. 15 (2015), pp. 51–69.

Kropf, Evyn, Will That Surrogate Do? Reflections on Material Manuscript Literacy in the Digital Environment from Islamic Manuscripts at the University of Michigan Library. In: Manuscript Studies, Vol. 1 (2017), Art. 4.

van Lit, Lambert Willem Cornelis, The Digital Materiality of Digitized Manuscripts. In: ibid. (ed.), Among Digitized Manuscripts. Philology, Codicology, Paleography in a Digital World. Handbook of Oriental Studies, Vol. 137, Leiden/Bosten 2020, pp. 51–72.




Cite this blog post
Claudia Berger (2021, August 11). Pics Or It Didn’t Happen – Part III. Mapping Africa and Asia. Retrieved April 16, 2024, from

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