Leventhal Map Center creates amazing historic atlas tool

Finding the history of a specific place in the Back Bay, South End or Fenway – such as one’s home or business – often resulted in consulting numerous printed atlases, perhaps a trip to the Hyde Park archives and likely a lot of dead ends.
Now, with an amazing new tool created by the Leventhal Map and Education Center at the Boston Public Library, dozens of detailed historical atlases and modern maps can be called up and compared at the touch of a button.
For years, historians and homeowners have consulted Fire Atlases and Real Estate maps to get a detailed look at what neighborhoods used to look like. Those atlases were produced for insurance companies and real estate brokers from the late 1800s to just before World War II.
It’s a tool that Garrett Nelson of the Leventhal said they have had in their possession for quite some time, and people have frequently visited their office at the Copley Square Library to consult those maps. However, it wasn’t easy work, and there were a lot of roadblocks to researchers.
“These are really fully detailed maps of what neighborhoods looked like in the Commonwealth,” he said. “They were mostly produced between 1860 and 1930. They are one of our most popular collections here. They have great detail up to the people that owned property, how properties changed and the overall changes in a neighborhood over time. A lot of people use these maps and have used them, but the physical collection has challenges…Comparing them over time can be difficult. The geography has changed…If you wanted to get every page, you had to work with a reference librarian and putting those together is difficult.”
That exercise isn’t unfamiliar to experienced researchers, and to amateurs as well. Now, the frustrations of those searches, and the travel time, has been eliminated with a new tool developed at Leventhal and called AtlasScope.

Garrett Nelson, curator of Maps and Director of Geographic Scholarship at the Leventhal Map Center in the Boston Public Library, poses with an old Fire Atlas in front of a computer screen showing the new digital AtlasScope tool.

“With AtlasScope, we identified 100 of the most important atlases within Boston and its immediate neighbors,” he said. “There are atlases for all over the state, but we decided to focus on Boston property and the near suburbs and within the times where we know we have the copyright.”
Nelson said they have spent the last year digitizing all of those maps – some of which were already online – but more importantly they used computer programs to piece them together. That allows users to move through the atlases, from year to year, as if it were a typical Google Map. Users can even use their phones to geo-reference themselves on the historic maps – meaning you can walk down the street and use the old maps and new Google Maps to explore what is there and what was there in the past.
“Wherever you can find something that still exists, then you can use a computer program to align the atlas into it correct location,” he said. “In the past, each page was arbitrary and they didn’t connect to the previous page. Some pages were rectangular and some were triangular. We were able to cut and paste all the pages together into a cohesive, online map.”
The AtlasScope also allows users to overlay the historical maps on top of one another, as well as one top of a modern map. That allows one to focus in on a location, such as Copley Square or Fenway Park to see what is there today, and what was there in the past. At Fenway Park, there are a number of available atlases and one can track the incremental development of the baseball field and the neighborhood around it over a period of about 25 years.
Using the app on a phone – which took about six months to develop alongside the greater project – one can really see changes over time.
“The idea is you can compare different years to one another and to the present,” Nelson said. “As time goes on we want to add more. There are more years and more maps for places we don’t yet have and years we also don’t yet have.”
Right now, they have included all of the City of Boston – though some places like downtown Boston and the downtown neighborhoods have more old maps embedded in the tool that other places like Hyde Park. In addition to Boston, there are maps for Newton, Cambridge, Somerville, Chelsea Winthrop, Brookline and Revere.
Nelson added that they do not consider the digital tool a replacement for the paper versions in their collection, but rather something that goes hand-in-hand.
“We don’t see the digital and paper as two different worlds, but two worlds that complement each other,” he said.
AtlasScope is certain to open up the research world to many new people who likely didn’t have the time or know-how to peruse specialty atlases. Using a computer, that world will be open to anyone, and Nelson said they are excited about what that access might bring.
“This is a tool anybody who is interested in the building of Boston and its neighborhoods – students, educators and local historians,” he said. “There are ways some of these maps inform what is happening in the present…It opens up questions and helps understand how Boston has changed. Maybe more than any American City, Boston geography has shaped its future and neighborhoods. Being able to access a very interesting collection really exposes these issues.”

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