Imagine 3,500 19th-century topographic maps lying in the basement of the James Madison building of the Library of Congress, collecting dust. Imagine that they hold a unique wealth of detail about land use and infrastructure; imagine that together they hold the key to mapping the archive, so to speak, of the late imperial period. But extracting the information they contain is no easy task. The TopoS project is converting the most comprehensive large-scale map series produced during the Russian Empire, the 1:126,000 Military-Topographic Survey of European Russia, into the foundation for pathbreaking research.
Why we are excited (and why you should be)
- The project deploys image-processing to facilitate the process of studying thousands of maps.
- The results of our collaboration with the Library of Congress will be accessible to the public.
- The location data we harvest will allow us to map European Russia at a scale and with a level of accuracy that has not been possible before.
The Military-Topographic Survey of European Russia was Russian in content but utterly trans-imperial in form. The middle of the 19th century was the golden age of topographic mapping, with grand projects conducted by the British, the French, and the Americans. In fact, as the 19th century progressed it became clear that the world could be divided into states that could and states that could not demonstrate their mastery of space through richly detailed maps.
The Military-Topographic Survey of European Russia was one of many mapping projects pursued in the late imperial period. It makes an excellent starting point for a long-term project that fuses historical expertise with technological innovation. Computers cannot read maps, but they can do some of the legwork. Can you imagine knowing where all the forests or swamps were 150 years ago? Or seeing the systems of mills and bridges that connected factories and fields to markets from St. Petersburg to Odessa? Understanding the empire's spatial structure is as important as understanding its political and social hierarchies, ethnographic composition, cultural or economic capacity. The goal of the TopoS project is to help us all "see" imperial space.