Maps! These visual, information-rich records show us where we are and where we’ve been. What would we do without them? Nathan Ng, a self-described “non-professional historian” certainly understands their importance. His past efforts have made the Goad’s Atlas, a detailed Victorian-era fire insurance map of Toronto, available to the internet masses at Goad’s Atlas – Online!. His most recent project, Historical Maps of Toronto, continues the work of bringing Toronto’s cartographic history to the web, with digitized maps from the 1858 Boulton Atlas of Toronto, the Alpheus Todd map of 1834 and many, many more. We picked Nathan’s brain about his love for maps, the Historical Maps of Toronto project, and his thoughts on the internet’s role in history education.
How did the idea for Toronto Historical Maps come about?
About 18 months ago, my favorite climbing gym was forced to move. The 120-year-old industrial building that housed it was being demolished to make way for condominiums — a classic Toronto tragedy. I was upset about the destruction of a perfectly fine property, so I wrote an extended history of the structure as a celebration of its long service and heritage. While I was researching that piece, I was introduced to the lovely Atlas of the City of Toronto, by Charles Goad — consisting of highly informative Victorian-era fire insurance maps of different parts of the city, showing building shapes, sizes and construction materials. These plans are invaluable for researchers of heritage buildings and houses.
Unfortunately, consulting the Atlas required a physical trip to the Library or the City Archives, which was inconvenient for me at the time. The maps had been digitized, but were not in a file format I could use. I was frustrated by the notion that the files were online but still not accessible to me. So I created my first mapping project, Goad’s Atlas—Online!, mostly for my own convenience. It turned out that other researchers found it handy as well.
For about a year after that, in the back of my mind I wanted to additionally post the 1858 Boulton Atlas of the City of Toronto—a predecessor to the fire insurance maps (This atlas is also extremely useful for anyone interested in the history of buildings in our city.)
It wasn’t a Goad publication, so I decided to create a separate site for it. And then I kept thinking, “Well this is good, but it sure would be nice if this other map was also available for people to see…” And I’d add a map to the site. About fifty maps later, I wound up with Historical Maps of Toronto.
What is it about maps that fascinates you? As opposed to other types of historical documentation like illustrations or photographs?
Great question. Definitely a huge appetite exists for illustrations and photographs from the past — look at the number of fans on the ‘Vintage Toronto’ Facebook page! For me, maps are a little more abstract. Even though they are purportedly representations of reality at the moment of their creation, they allow you to use your imagination to visualize that reality. They also give you insight into the world-view of the map-makers themselves — what did they see as important? What features did they consider relevant to include or omit?
It’s this subjectivity that surprisingly gives maps their power to captivate — the dual interpretation from both the map-maker and from yourself.
How long did it take to create Historical Maps of Toronto, from concept to completion?
The gestation period has been maybe a year or so. I kept thinking someone ought to do this. Eventually that someone turned out to be me.
The actual execution of the site took a few months, from early January until late March (there are still a few maps I’d like to find a copy of, to post, but the set is roughly complete). What takes the most time is discovering what maps actually exist, and then tracking down whether they’ve been scanned or not.
How did you choose which maps to include?
When I was posting the 1858 Boulton Atlas, I wanted to supplement it with commentary so that people would understand its context and why it is an important historical record for us to consult. In trying to find out more about the Boulton Atlas, I stumbled across the text for a 1984 Royal Ontario Museum exhibit, Mapping Toronto’s First Century 1787-1884, by Joan Winearls and Isobel Ganton. This exhibit — long since dismantled and beyond memory for younger researchers — was a superb physical collection of significant Toronto maps. Unfortunately the text for the exhibit survives only in a typewritten transcript buried in the request-only stacks at the Toronto Reference Library, and doesn’t even include any of the corresponding maps.
I thought that their excellent scholarship and curation should see the light of day again, so I leveraged that as a rough guide for what base maps to seek out and focus on. In some ways the site is a brazen partial remix of that exhibit. Derek Hayes’ Historical Atlas of Toronto was also helpful for understanding what maps were out there.
Can you describe the process of scanning and digitizing these maps?
Here is where credit and applause should go to the unsung heroes behind the scenes at the holding institutions — the Toronto Public Library, the City of Toronto Archives, Library and Archives Canada, etc. These (under-resourced) organizations have embarked upon independent processes of digitization of their collections — a task that will likely never end. The current difficulty is that — for the neophyte researcher, which I consider myself to be — the output of their stellar efforts is still often hard to find, and scattered.
My intent (for the site) is to serve as an introductory, complementary resource (rather than authoritative). It helps that the maps are consolidated in a nice tidy list. I want people to discover that these artefacts exist, and then if they want to learn more, if their curiosity has been piqued, they can research the item or the period in full at the corresponding institution.
Sometimes, maps I’ve been interested in posting aren’t available.
For example, there’s one map out there that I would love to get, but the cost is prohibitive for me. It’s the 1793 Plan of York Harbour by Alexander Aitken. It was sent by John Graves Simcoe in a letter he dispatched to Henry Dundas, Secretary of State for War (and the Colonies) in 1793. We never got it back — the original is held by the UK National Archives, but it hasn’t been digitized. It’ll cost $150 to get it scanned & licensed! As a result very few people ever see it, even though it’s historically significant. What we have locally are transcript copies. What I’d like is another copy of the original — a digital one.
Do you have a favourite map from the project? Or one that you find especially revealing?
That is a tough one to answer! There are so many wonderfully fascinating maps I’ve come across, and each of them has a different story to tell. One of the most revealing maps is the 1818 Plan of York by Lieutenant George Phillpotts. This map illustrates how incredibly the city has grown in 200 years time — everything north of Queen street is either forest or farmland! The entire town is barely more than about a dozen blocks total. And yet it also shows us how the city has been influenced by its past — for example, there’s the British insistence on imposing an orderly grid to lay out the streets…
What’s been the most surprising thing that you’ve learned about Toronto after spending so much time with these maps?
An aspect of research that I’m sure your readers can relate to, is that history is full of tangled and convoluted threads. One fact leads to another and another, and before you know it, you are poring over somebody’s Master’s thesis on some obscure topic you never even knew about to begin with! For me something that was very intriguing was how Toronto dealt with its rivers. The burial of Garrison Creek and the Taddle, the straightening of the Don — these changes are things that you notice occurring in the maps, and when you try to find out more, you discover an entire history of events that has occurred, that other people are extremely passionate about and have investigated extensively. As an amateur, it is delightful to stumble across this sort of thing.
Setting useful information free from traditional or technical constraints seems to be one of the goals of this project, which is very in line with the web’s democratizing effect on content. How do you see the freeing of information playing out in terms of history and history education?
Definitely one of the elements that led to the creation of this project was my personal frustration with seeking out the information— the process I had to go through to merely take a look at the maps. If you’re a professional historian or researcher and you understand the ins and outs of the various catalogues, archives and holdings, I’m sure it’s manageable, but for a layperson like myself — I wanted an alternative, simpler way to get at these records.
I love the idea of otherwise rare, obscure, or delicate historical documents being made available on the web for general consumption. Because these factors impede access. It is a public good for primary sources on our history to become discoverable and accessible online. What good to me is a record in the Archives, if I never find it, or can’t physically travel to consult it? And in many cases, the item in question is fragile, so the focus is (correctly) on preservation and conservation, and protecting it from over-handling. Placing a decent facsimile of it online eases the pain considerably.
What’s more, once records are online others can share it, and contribute additional data and commentary, dramatically increasing the information-value and awareness of the artefact. For example, geo-referencing historical maps is a huge new field — layering on additional data sets to an old map is super-popular these days. I wish I was technical enough to explore that area myself.
What students and researchers need to understand, of course, is that not everything is online (yet), and not all information is free. One of the reasons why I don’t have many maps past 1900 is that I don’t want to deal with copyright. All of my images (as far as I know) are in the public domain. For the Goad maps I referenced earlier, there is a private company that asserts a proprietary ownership of all Goad maps less than 90 years of age. I can understand going back a couple of decades how there might be a commercial interest, but 90 years? That’s painful.
Grappling with this trend is going to be a complex challenge for institutions and historians alike. The answer is never going to be as simple as ‘just Google it’ or ‘look it up in Wikipedia’. Online records are merely an entry point to further investigation.
Do you have plans to digitize maps of other Canadian cities?
My enthusiasm is primarily focused on Toronto, where I live.
Accordingly, I’ve been working on a follow-up project, my third (!) Toronto mapping site — this time a collaboration with Stephen Otto and The Friends of Fort York. As part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York, we’ve compiled a collection of maps that visually traces the history and development of Fort York and the surrounding Garrison Common.
I’d like to cordially invite anyone to visit Fort York and Garrison Common Maps. It’s not quitecomplete and will get some updates in the weeks to come, but there’s plenty of material up already for general browsing, for those interested in the subject of the birthplace of Toronto.