Digitization of historical globes at the British Library (courtesy of © British Library Board)

Some may think of globes as navigational tools, but really, they are closer to time capsules. From the earliest nomadic cultures to the so-called Age of Exploration, and beyond, the ways in which humans have visualized and abstracted our world are ever-changing — and globes throughout the ages have transitioned from useful information to extraordinary documents of bygone worldviews. Now, as real-world travel is curtailed, the British Library has released an interactive archive of their collection of globes, to satisfy history buffs and frustrated wanderlust.

The archive presents 3D models of 11 globes — a subset of the library’s historic maps collection — that can be rotated and zoomed into for greater detail at every angle. This includes a stunning 1602 celestial globe by Dutch cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu, first produced in 1602. In addition to representing the constellations as their fantastic and mythological namesakes, it identifies a nova in the constellation of Cygnus which Blaeu had personally observed in 1600. It’s one of several celestial globes in the collection — some of which pair with terrestrial counterparts — and all of which are fascinating examples of globes that do not represent terra firma or spaces with fixed positions at all, and indeed capture only a brief moment in the relationship of celestial bodies.

In additional to fantastic creatures, the globes showcase examples of cartographic visualization between 1602–1783, and include charming archaic conceptions of the oceans — the “Atalantick Ocean” in the 1730 Richard Cushee terrestrial globe, or the “Ethipoic Ocean” in the 1783 terrestrial globe by G. Wright and W. Bardin.

“The globes are particularly enigmatic objects with fascinating insights into the history of science and society,” said Tom Harper, Lead Curator of Antiquarian Maps at the British Library, in the press release. “Yet for all their ‘show’ they can be remarkably elusive objects which are difficult to properly look at, study and understand. For the first time, this innovative project makes a number of our most important globes available beyond the British Library’s reading rooms and exhibition galleries, to a wider audience and in a more imaginative way than ever before.”

Digitization of historical globes (courtesy of © British Library Board)

For anyone wishing they could get out there and see the world, but responsibly homebound in accordance with public health concerns, this is a great opportunity from the British Library to take a fascinating piece of their collection for a spin!

Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...