Phil Jones, Geographer
The very rarely updated blog
At the University of Birmingham we have a very large map collection held within the School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences. It’s an eclectic mix of maps used in the field, teaching sets of ordnance survey and geology maps, large scale topographic maps for regions across the globe, a treasure trove of historic items and fascinating oddities such as fire insurance plans. More and more of the everyday maps that we use for teaching are now digital, however. In common with map collections elsewhere in the UK the balance is therefore shifting from being a working collection toward being more of an archive collection. Archives are, of course, fantastically important and useful things – well I would say that, given that I used to be an historian – and so we’re looking at how we manage the long-term future of the excellent collection that we have at Birmingham.
I’ve been in Melbourne for just over a month now and have been working on a number of projects in parallel. One of my reasons for being here is to look at Australian practice in terms of managing map collections. I’ve spent the last few weeks talking to experts in the field about how they manage their maps, having meetings with University-based map librarians and collection managers based at the Victoria and New South Wales State Libraries and the National Library of Australia in Canberra.
In meeting this group of passionate and fascinating individuals, a couple of themes have become clear. First, as in the UK, university map librarians are starting to retire and when they do, institutions are having to make difficult choices about how they manage those collections. The library team at one university are currently doing a piece of research attempting to figure out what to do with what has become a somewhat orphaned collection. The library building in which it’s housed is under great pressure to expand the number of study spaces as student numbers climb meaning that storage space is at a premium. Some of the map material has been passed to other institutions, some will go to offsite storage, some may be disposed of.
The future seems to be in digitisation – perhaps no surprise. Scanning maps is a lot of work, but in some ways is the relatively straightforward part of the problem. The key challenges would seem to be:
Fundamentally these are library and database management problems which means that securing the future of the collection at Birmingham will need much closer coordination with our central library team. There are a lot of things to put in place before we can start simply scanning the maps, even if we can get volunteer labour to help offset some of the costs of this. We also need to look carefully at what is already available online at archive grade before doing any scanning. The National Library of Australia, for example, get a great many inquiries from people in the UK because they’ve made freely available a great number of high quality scans of Ordnance Survey maps of Britain.
There’s quite a bit of work for us to do at Birmingham, but from what I’ve seen operating here, I think we can be optimistic about securing the future of our collection. This will require an investment of time and money but, based on this trip, I feel much more confident in knowing what we need to ask for and who we need to talk to in order to make this happen.
I need to say a big thank you to everyone who took the time to meet with me here in Australia, but particularly to David Jones, the Map Curator at the University of Melbourne who has been incredibly generous in opening up his little black book and connecting me with colleagues across the country. If you are interested in maps and find yourself in Melbourne, do look David up - he's a thoroughly good bloke and looks after quite an amazing collection.
I’m relatively new to modern console gaming. The first time I played Assassin’s Creed: Unity there was a moment of genuine shock where, seeing the sheer size and detail of the landscape being represented I wondered to myself “do geographers even know about this stuff?”. I laughed out loud when, walking away from a representation of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in 1789, I found the River Seine, exactly where I would have expected it to be from my knowledge of the real city.
As Monica Degen, Clare Melhuish and Gillian Rose (2017) have discussed, virtual environments are more than just representations, but are intended to do work in the material world. This is something that I’ve been writing about with Tess Osborne in relation to video games. Hopefully that paper should see the light of day shortly, but in the meantime while I’m in Australia I’ve been hit by an odd sensation of familiarity. I have physically been to Australia before, but that was back in 1987 and my memories are somewhat blurred by time. Much more recently, however, I’ve been to a virtual Australia courtesy of Turn 10 Studios’ Forza Horizon 3.
For those unfamiliar with the Forza franchise, these are Xbox exclusive games that come in two flavours. The main Forza series is about creating a minutely detailed racing simulator, with real race tracks laser scanned for maximum accuracy, incredibly careful reproductions not just of the look of different cars, but their driving characteristics. It’s a labour of love, incredibly nerdy and – if you’re anything like me – almost impossible to control unless you turn all of the driver aids and cheats to maximum. Technically these games are fascinating, but perhaps not wildly fun.
Every other year, however, Turn 10 release one of the Forza Horizon games. These are open world – in that you can drive freely rather than being confined to a track – and are very much playful. You can drive a Lamborghini at high speed through a vineyard with cheerful abandon before getting back onto the asphalt and pottering toward a local town without having to call a tow truck because you’ve shattered your transmission into a thousand tiny fragments. The Horizon games are fun and silly, but at least vaguely based on real places. Forza Horizon 2 is set in the south of France and it’s strange to drive through a simplified version of Nice and recognise some of the buildings along the Promenade des Anglais looking across the beach.
Games designers, for practical and ludic reasons, fiddle with the details when real places are being reproduced. So the Australia of Forza Horizon 3 might feature real places, but you certainly can’t drive from the Great Ocean Road west of Melbourne to Coober Pedy north of Adelaide in ten minutes as you can in the game (Google Maps suggests it would take about 17 hours). Nonetheless, some of the game landscapes are simply haunting compared to the real thing. On a gravel road up in the hills north of Melbourne at the weekend, I was struck just how much it felt to me like I was in the game – empty roads, beautiful forest.
Of course, I wasn’t in a hyper car and I’m not convinced the hire company would have been impressed that I was out on a dirt track. Similarly, down on the Great Ocean Road, the scenery is uncannily like the game in places, but there was no way I was going to be doing any driving down in the surf when I visited.
The shock of recognition says something about the levels of detail games designers are now using to create a compelling environment in which we can play – partly to keep us wanting to buy the next game, the next expansion pack and so on. But, of course, designers cut out the boring bits. There’s a lot of rather dull urban landscape in material London when moving between the famous bits – but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from playing Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Similarly, the Great Ocean road is pretty, but the mundane realities of speed limits, heavy traffic and the need to find somewhere for lunch make it a very different experience to hooning along at 250kph in a Koenigsegg before completely losing the back end going into a corner too quickly and ending up crashing into a cliff face. Games landscapes can be consumed in a variety of different ways, but everything about them is encouraging you to have a much more ludic engagement in ways that would be deemed profoundly antisocial in the real world. And, indeed, the gamerly skills needed to engage with the virtual landscape in that way don’t really translate to the material realities of being out on a dusty mountain road, on your own, with somewhat spotty GPS reception and without a clear idea of where you’re going. But it can still be genuinely disturbing when you’re visiting a new place and think to yourself “I feel like I’ve been here before…”
Degen, M., Melhuish, C. and Rose, G. (2017) Producing place atmospheres digitally: architecture, digital visualisation practices and the experience economy, Journal of Consumer Culture 17: 3-24.