Collections Highlight: Civitates Orbis Terrarum

Lynsey and Sarah interview Kim Downie, Digitisation Officer at the Special Collections Centre.

Can you tell us a bit about your job?
I’ve been the Digitisation Officer since October 2009. I’m responsible for the digitisation of archive material, whether it’s for research, publication or teaching purposes. I graduated from Grays School of Art in 1999, where I did a degree in Visual Communication and it was a typical case of coming out of art school and applying for any job that might be suitable. When the job for Digitisation Assistant came up they were looking for someone who had an eye for detail, had some experience of Photoshop and was interested in archive material. I’d always been interested in history so it really appealed to me, I applied for it and I got it. When I started I was just scanning photographic plates of Aberdeen Harbour Board but as my skills grew in digitisation and photography the job evolved and I got to digitise more and more archive material, such as rare books and manuscripts.

I try not to edit the images that I take but sometimes I have to, especially if I’m not taking them within a studio environment. Sometimes I have to go out with the camera and take pictures and then there are issues with things like perspective so I have to apply some adjustments. There is no substitution for good photography or scanning though and as far as possible I try to get the images as close to the original as possible.

What do you like about your job?
My favourite part of my job is digitising beautiful, old and fragile books like the Civitates Orbis Terrarum which I have chosen as my Collection Highlight. So far I have only captured about four images from its four volumes but I would happily sit down day after day and photograph every single image. It would be fantastic to do it, I would not get bored. Another good thing about my job is that I get to do the design side of things as well; I design web pages and posters for exhibitions such as Gilded Beasts and Set in Silver.

Tell us about one of your favourite items in the collection.
One of my favourite items is the Civitates Orbis Terrarum. This is a book of maps and plans of cities dated from 1577 to 1581. It was edited by a man named George Braun who would have commissioned the artists to do the illustrations. There are four volumes with illustrations of cities such as Innsbruck, Jerusalem and Copenhagen.

Why is this one of your favourite books?
I absolutely adore maps, any old map, even new maps. I’d quite happily sit and read the AA map book! I don’t know why, I think it’s the detail that appeals to the illustrator in me.

Can you show us some of your favourite pages?
Just recently I was working on the Special Collections book and I was asked to digitise a couple of images out of one of the volumes of the Civitates Orbis Terrarum. I was going through it and I came across the map of Bergen in Norway.  Straight away I thought “oh magic” because I lived in Bergen and I know Bergen really really well.

What strikes me about this particular map is how accurate it is. I recognise all of it, the whole layout. The area on the water front is Bryggen which still exists and is a UNESCO World Heritage site now. Those lovely little wooden houses down there are still there, although I think they’ve been burned down and rebuilt over the centuries. Other landmarks like the churches and the town hall still exist; I used to walk past them all the time. I used to live in the area called Sandviken and I’d walk into town past St. Mary’s Kirk. Topographically it is very very accurate. What really appeals to me though is that every time I look at the map I see something new, a detail I didn’t pick up the first time. There is something going on in the hills, I don’t really know what it is, maybe they are planting things. I know there is a little train that goes up there now and houses all the way up but I’d really like to know what’s happening here in the map. The hillside is very steep, which is one thing that doesn’t come across in the map, but they were obviously working the land at some point. It has also been suggested that it was strips of sail cloth being laid out to dry.

Another thing I noticed fairly recently was that there are animals on the roofs, which I just thought was bizarre. I’m not sure what they are, maybe sheep or goats. I know you do still get houses in Norway which have grass on the roof, maybe the animals are grazing on it. There is no real indication that it is actually grass but I can’t see what else it could be.

I like this page because it’s a lovely image and it’s so familiar to me. There is a nice one of Copenhagen too. I don’t know how accurate this one it, but I’d imagine if Bergen is this accurate then the others might be as well.

Thanks Kim, for a great Collections Highlight!  We’re already collecting more posts from the rest of the Special Collections team so keep an eye out for them in the future.

Posted by: Sarah and Lynsey

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