About the project
Early in 2005, an advert appeared in Despatches, the journal of the Friends of the Imperial War Museum, for volunteers to help with cataloguing the map collection. A number of people responded, resulting in four and later, five, regulars. The work was to concentrate on the Great War maps, the main purpose of the catalogue being to make the collection more accessible to the public by making it easy to search.
It was very clear to the team that scanning the maps would greatly serve the purpose of increased public access. Those who cannot get to the museum and those who wish to have high quality colour copies at home would all benefit. An agreement was reached with the museum to go ahead with a scanning project. Another benefit became very apparent after the project was underway, simply browsing the maps yields far more than any catalogue can provide.
The WFA project aimed to digitise the entire Great War map collection, many thousands of maps. This is in contrast with other trench map projects that provide what some consider to be the most interesting or significant and most concentrate on purely trench maps. It was recognised that the broad history of the Great War is already written so the main areas of interest would therefore be from people researching family or unit histories. This fact alone informed the decision to scan almost the entire set of maps, there being no way to discover which are the most important. The only items missed were either too fragile to scan or too large.
Funds were approved for a large scanner and associated PC & software and the work was started in liaison with museum staff. It was planned to make the resulting scanned maps available in the Reading Room and for sale on DVD from the WFA via the Mapping the Front series of discs.
The WFA strongly supported the museum's aim of improved access and also understood the importance of preserving the collection. The maps are becoming more fragile so having access to digitised copies would reduce the number of times an original map is handled. Although there are problems with the long-term preservation of digital archives, having copies in addition to the original maps was seen as a way of improving the longevity of the archive.
Many WFA members will be familiar with trench maps and the Mapping the Front project will supply many of these, but in addition, there are many maps of other types not in general circulation. These include hand drawn or annotated maps, barrage maps etc. A number of aerial photographs will also be included, but the greatest collection of these is held in the Dept. of Photographs which are not therefore covered by this project. Others show motor transport, railways or unit dispositions, so although the generic term "trench map" is used, in fact there are many types of map in the scanned archive.
Also included are documents sourced from outside of the IWM, the most important being the "Report of Survey on the Western Front" which provides a detailed and surprisingly easy to understand description of the history of mapping in the Great War.
Technology having advanced since the Mapping the Front project, it is far better to present as many maps as possible for viewing and download on-line. This website provides that facility along with linking the maps to modern maps and a host of other benefits.
This is not a static project, after the site is launched it will expand and develop, more maps will be georeferenced and more information made available.
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