Leveraging the Public Domain to Create Beautiful Maps

January 7th, 2016 by Vincent Quatroche

The New York Public Library recently announced that more than 180,000 of its digital items are being released as high-resolution downloads and can be reused without restrictions. This free-flow of information can only be a good thing

Back in the fall, we discovered the NYPL Map Warper, a huge collection of digitized historical maps.  The archive includes a tool that can be used to lay historical maps over modern-day maps.

Before too long, we were laying historical maps of the New York Metro area on top of our Orbitist base maps utilizing the provided xyz tiles. It kind of blew our minds!

You can add custom map tiles to an Orbitist map from within a map’s ‘Map Settings’. Click the ‘Map Styles’ tab, and paste any xyz tile url into the ‘Custom Base Map’ field.

You can add custom map tiles to an Orbitist map from within a map’s ‘Map Settings’. Click the ‘Map Styles’ tab, and paste any xyz tile url into the ‘Custom Base Map’ field.

 A few months ago, as the Thanksgiving holiday approached, I started thinking about what about what people would be waking up to watch that day.  To me, the obvious answer was the Macy’s Day Parade in New York City.  As I thought about what we’d see in Herald Square, I started to scroll through old black-and-white images in my head of parades past making their way down Broadway.   

My thoughts started to circle back to the NYPL Map Warper.  

I searched through the database of maps and was able to find a rectified map of Herald Square and the surrounding neighborhood in 1916.  One exciting aspect of utilizing a map from 1916 was that all of the visual content I incorporated into the map was in the public domain, as long as first publication occurred before January 1, 1923.  

As I looked over this map from more than a century ago, I started to isolate points of interest, such as R.H. Macy & Co., Gimbels, Saks Department Store, the original Waldorf Astoria, and even a New York State Arsenal.  As I researched the neighborhood, I learned about the long competition between Macy’s and Gimbels, and the how the first Waldorf Astoria was razed to make way for the Empire State Building and how the Marbridge Building(1909) is the current U.S. home of Publicis.  You can even stay in the Hotel Martinique(1898) today, in the form of a Radisson.  

After finishing this map, I felt that I had gained a greater geographical and historical perspective of the neighborhood I was watching on the Macy’s Day Parade.  Additionally, I had been able to provide myself with a greater contextual understanding of some of the landmarks that I might not be aware of otherwise.  

So that brings me back to the NYPL’s recent announcement.  With so many high resolution digital items becoming available, there are great opportunities for historical exploration through maps. To all the innovators at NYPL:  Kudos on this seriously important achievement!   

VIncent Quatroche is Senior Explorer at Orbitist.  He hails from Western New York but has called New York City home since 2010.   See an old New York City neighborhood that you want explored on Orbitist?  Contact him at [email protected]

You can make beautiful maps like this using Orbitist.  Learn how how to make a map in about 8 minutes.