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Osher Map Library Brings its Globes to the Public

by on February 23, 2016

Want to see some large antique globes, but don’t want to put on pants and trek to Portland, Maine? The Osher Map Library (OML) has you covered with its new digitization project. Globes were once incredibly common for use in mapping and exploring the world, but now it can be hard to get up close and personal with these delicate items. Luckily for map- and history-lovers, the Osher Map Library is working hard to get its collection of nearly three hundred vintage globes online and available for viewing at all hours of the day.

The Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at the University of Southern Maine is a standalone library that provides access to thousands of vintage cartographic and geographic items that date back to 1475. The library’s collections contain 294 globes, the oldest of which are dated 1603 and 1607.

Because of the globes’ age and fragility, they are usually only observable behind glass. Digitizing the globes allows anyone online to virtually observe them in greater detail and to move them around—without physically touching the items. OML staff have been working for the last several years on digitizing the collection’s flat maps and atlases on the website. For this globe project, a different set of skills and equipment was needed. “There isn’t anyone else in the world digitizing globes the way we are now,” said Ian Fowler, Director of the Osher Map Library and Library Digital Initiatives.[1]

The common way to digitize a globe is by making a “video game” version using flat map and globe images applied to a globe base. Osher Map Library, on the other hand, is using a method most often seen on online retail websites like Zappos. To make their 3D globes, OML staff take up to seven hundred distinct photos of the globe covering nearly every visible angle. Visitors to the website can either view each of these photos separately or view the 3D model, allowing them to both rotate the globe and zoom in to see finer details. All of this effort pays off by vastly increasing access to globes.

OML secured a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to allow the library to conserve the globes, a process that involves removing the paper and varnish, cleaning up the globes, and putting them back together again. The library also received seed money from their Friends organization for the Ortery 3D imaging equipment and 36-megapixel camera used to take the photographs.

So far, thirteen of the library’s globes have been conserved, and three have been fully imaged and uploaded to the website. Along with the detailed globe renderings, the team is also uploading hundreds of pages of manuals that instruct globe users on points like measuring distances or understanding time zones. The NEH grant will help pay for the digitization of twenty-four globes, and the library’s goal is to eventually digitize all globes in the collection.


[1] Ian Fowler and David Neikirk. Interview by author. January 13, 2015.


Osher Map Library

Osher Map Library at University of Southern Maine digitizes its rare globe collection.

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