Opening times

National Library of Estonia: map donations help fill in the blank spots in history

22. February 2024

The National Library of Estonia’s map collection captures a wide variety of landscapes, ranging from hundreds of orienteering routes to mysterious roads and buildings that no longer exist. The collection has helped to find important places in Estonia and beyond, but its main role is to complement Estonian cultural history.

The task of the National Library of Estonia is to collect, preserve and make available maps published in Estonian as well as maps depicting Estonia and the life of Estonians. In Estonian cultural history, maps are as important as literature, music or art.

The map collection of the National Library of Estonia contains about 33,300 maps over a period of five centuries. It can open up completely new perspectives or details for contemporary and future specialists in digital humanities or fans of history to make new discoveries. But the maps can also help people with their everyday questions.

Beijing and pharmacies

Tiina Kruup, the Map Librarian at the National Library, recalls a case from the beginning of the 2000s: „One day a person came to the National Library who wanted to buy a specific medicine during their visit to China. We had a Beijing city map but it did not indicate the locations of pharmacies. How do you even search for them in Chinese or English? Using the term „traditional medicine“ we finally found pharmacies with the help of Google maps and provided our visitor with information about the locations. We were surprised that the story ended very positively, because the person later came back to the library and thanked us for our help“. 

Donations play an important role

The main supplements to the map collection come from purchases and also deposit copies sent by printing offices. Donations have played an important role, as not all map publications have reached the National Library. For example, in 2023 the map publisher Regio donated nearly 300 maps, of these 212 had been missing in the library and were thus sent to our archival collection of maps. This donation helped to fill in many blanks in the period starting with the 1990s.

In recent decades, the biggest donors have been the Police and Border Guard Board, the Estonian Map Centre, the former Estonian Historical Archive and the Maritime Administration, as well as several other institutions and private individuals. Active donors are orienteers who have submitted thousands of orienteering cards.

„Many maps made initially for orienteering can provide valuable information about even the slightest changes in the landscape of the local area, because they are exceptionally detailed and the time of preparation is always known“, Tiina Kruup explains. She adds that exact dates are very important for research. Comparison of maps has revealed objects that have not been marked on the so-called mainstream maps.

In order to supplement the map collection of the National Library of Estonia, the library invites everyone to check their homes or offices for any maps that are no longer needed. „Regrettably it is often believed that if a map is made for a single event or tourist period, it has no conservation value. The National Library’s map collection that goes back to the 16th century contains blanks from both the distant and the recent past“, says Tiina Kruup, who has been engaged in collecting maps for a long time. She is hopeful that with the help of people the white areas can be significantly reduced. Information and donation offers are welcome at [email protected].

The oldest map in the National Library of Estonia’s collection (from 1540).
Cartographer: Sebastian Münster, Author: Klaudios Ptolemy, Publisher: Henri Petri

Old maps can be browsed at: Maps – National Library of Estonia