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A Map Library Is Digitizing Its Rarest Globes as 3D Models

The 1603 Willem Blaeu terrestrial globe
The 1603 Willem Blaeu celestial globe (all images courtesy the Osher Map Library)

“Globes have a very low survival rate,” explained Ian Fowler, director of the Osher Map Library (OML) at the University of Southern Maine. Made to be touched and spun, globes wear down over the years, their maps deteriorating into illegibility. For this reason, historic globes are usually kept behind glass or in storage at libraries and museums, the tactile aspect of the objects inaccessible to visitors.

The 3D digitization of the 1603 Blaeu celestial globe (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic)
The 3D digitization of the 1603 Blaeu celestial globe (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic)

In a new 3D imaging project, OML is making some of its oldest and rarest globes available in online models that recreate as faithfully as possible the experience of viewing the objects up close. OML’s collection of 300 globes is second in the United States only to the Library of Congress (which has over 500 globes and globe gores). Some 24 globes in the OML collection are the initial focus of the multi-year imaging project, supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant.

Three are now available in a 3D digitization, including the library’s two oldest: 1603 and 1607 celestial globes by Dutch cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu. Both show the latest in 17th-century astronomy, including newly named Southern Hemisphere constellations. These were followed by imaging the 1792 “Globo Celeste” by Italian geographer Giovanni Maria Cassini. In the 17th and 18th centuries, globes were often sold in pairs, one terrestrial, and one celestial.

“Globes in any institution or library around the world are incredibly hard to use, they’re usually not available to patrons, so you can never actually touch them or see the bottom side of the globe, or even the back of the globe,” Fowler said. “So the main reason for the project was to increase usability of the globes.”

Digitizing the 1603 Willem Blaeu globe
Digitizing the 1603 Willem Blaeu globe

David R. Neikirk, OML’s digital imaging coordinator, added that the globes are currently “displayed in our reading room, and it’s a case and has a mirror behind it, so you can see the full 360 degrees.” Some of the globes are also on view in OML’s Masterpieces at USM: Celebrating Five Centuries of Rare Maps and Globes exhibition. Taking an unconventional step for a library, OML is using e-commerce 3D imaging software and equipment from Ortery. The program involves photographing the globes on a turntable with a photoarm that takes a shot from every possible angle, something which results in hundreds of images. In addition to the models, the photographs are also available online.

“This enables users to go online and scroll and see a full detail of the globe,” Neikirk said, noting that they’re still experimenting with the best way to digitally display the globes. Often when libraries or museums digitize globes, they either take straightforward photographs, or map the globe onto a virtual orb, making it appear more like Google Earth than the original object.  For example, the digitizing of the 15th-century Behaim Globe at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum focused on building a new 3D model, and the Vienna Globe Museum had a similar 3D-mapping approach to their globes, which comprise the world’s largest public globe collection.

“Those are completely virtual, which is different from what we do, which is to photograph the globe so the 3D artifact is as close to what it looks like in person,” Fowler said. “We believe we’re the first institution in the world to create a fully rotatable representation of the 3D artifacts.”

The digitized 1603 Blaeu celestial globe online at the Osher Map Library (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
The digitized 1603 Blaeu celestial globe online at the Osher Map Library (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

Along with the globes, OML is digitizing the manuals that originally came with the globes, a contextual project led by digital imaging assistant Adinah Barnett. The globe project is complex and time consuming, involving the individual conservation of each object, each of which has its own individual complications, whether it be the size which ranges from huge to small like a 1731 pocket globe from London, or the lighting challenges of a spherical object. Currently Neikirk is working on a pair of globes by 18th–19th century French geographer C. F. Delamarche made of warped wood, which makes getting a clear image difficult. However, Neikirk and Fowler agree that they’ve designed an affordable (compared to other globe projects) and scalable model that other institutions can use for their globes.

“It really is a severely underused portion of every library’s collection around the world, and we’re really excited to put these in the public sphere,” Neikirk said, laughing at the unintended pun.

The 1603 Willem Blaeu terrestrial globe
The stand for the 1603 Willem Blaeu celestial globe
The 1603 Willem Blaeu terrestrial globe
The 1603 Willem Blaeu celestial globe
The 1603 Willem Blaeu terrestrial globe
The 1603 Willem Blaeu celestial globe in its stand

Read more about the 3D imaging of the globes at the Osher Map Library, University of Southern Maine

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