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Announcing the Launch of the BHS Map Portal!

By Maggie Schreiner

Posted on July 15, 2020

Map of land of … situate[d] in the town of New Utrecht, county of Kings, and state of New York, as compiled from various surveys: by T.G. Bergen; 1876, Map Collection, Bergen-1876a.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

This map is one of close to 1500 maps now available in Brooklyn Historical Society’s newly launched map collections portal website.

The portal provides access to digitized maps from the 17th century, through the Revolutionary War; to 1834, when Brooklyn was first incorporated as a city; to 1898, when Brooklyn became a borough by consolidating with New York City; to 2015. Included are manuscript and printed street, political, topographical, nautical, property, survey, pictorial, demographic, and transit maps, the majority of which are rare or unique to BHS’s Othmer Library.

The portal is the culmination of a 2017 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, with additional support provided by the Robert D. L. Gardiner Foundation and the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. This funding allowed BHS to conserve a selection of maps, and to digitize and geolocate the vast majority of our map collections. Maps that were once too fragile for any handling have now been repaired, scanned, and made available online. The launch of the map portal is particularly timely given the continued closure of the Othmer Library. These unique research resources are now available to all online.

Flatbush, town of Flatbush, Kings Co., L.I.; [1873], Map Collection, B A-[1873]a.Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

The maps made available online through the portal allow us to explore the evolution of Brooklyn from village, to city, and to borough. Twentieth century maps show visually and spatially how major issues, such as urban redevelopment, have shaped and continue to shape the built environment, neighborhoods, and communities. A selection of highlights from the collection include:

  • Transportation maps: ferry maps, elevated and subway trains; trolleys; roads and highways; and modern bicycle route maps.
  • Municipal development of Brooklyn, including the annexation of the towns of Williamsburg, Bushwick, New Lots, Gravesend, New Utrecht, and Flatlands and ongoing political redistricting and public utility expansion including water and sewage, roads, pavement, and gas lines.
  • Hand-drawn, nineteenth century manuscript surveyors’ maps of property focusing on the neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights and New Utrecht.
  • Maps of the borough’s many neighborhoods and plans for parks, beaches, and playgrounds reveal the evolution of how and where Brooklynites have engaged in leisure activities.
  • Hundreds of additional maps depicting New York City and its environs as it grew into a greater metropolitan area, Long Island in the nineteenth century, and a smaller number of maps of New York State and the Northeast.
Map showing how to reach Ebbets Field, Brooklyn; [1919], Map Collection, B C-[1919].Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Users can access maps through browsing, keyword searches, or using location, subject or date filters. BHS staff have curated a selection of maps on core themes that emerge from the collection: Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods, Land Use and Development, Leisure, Natural Environment, and Public Transit. Each individual map is displayed with associated metadata, including location and subject terms, dimensions, and more. Each map can be enlarged, and is displayed alongside its present-day location. This functionality was made possible through adding GIS location data to every map.

On the back-end, the site is built on WordPress, and uses custom plugins that make it easy to add content with rich metadata descriptions. BHS first developed and utilized this technology for our award-winning oral history portal. We are excited to demonstrate that this back-end technology can be employed to provide robust, user-friendly access to a variety of formats, including oral histories, maps, and  more! We hope that our WordPress portals can serve as a model for other similarly sized and resourced repositories, and toward that end, BHS has made the custom plugins open source and freely available on GitHub.

Downtown Brooklyn: designed by Incentra International, Inc; [1990], Map Collection, B A-[1990?].Fl; Brooklyn Historical Society.

To learn more about the work of BHS staff, conservators, and digitization specialists who made this portal possible, please refer to previous blog posts about this project here, here and here.

Visit the map collections portal website here:

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