Collections such as this often benefit from having a structural theme to hang from, so rather than simply delivering a random assortment of the Bodleian’s million-strong archive, curator Debbie Hall has assembled an intriguing compendium, split across distinct sections including exploration, military usage, education, records of ownership, maps of cities and leisure, and even the realms of imagination. No prizes for guessing that last chapter includes both Narnia and Middle-earth, but there are still surprises to be had including a proposed restructuring of London following the Great Fire that would have seen the capital take on a far more ‘Parisian’ feel with elongated boulevards (it wasn’t to be and so London remains the uncoordinated urban sprawl we know and barely tolerate today).
Particularly pleasing is that each entry is accompanied by insightful commentary that not only takes in the map pictured, but also looks at the wider topics addressed by each, as well as its place in the Bodleian itself (indeed, the book often comes across as much a celebration of the library as the maps themselves). If there is a criticism to be had, it can be said that often, the rigid adherence to each page’s templated layout renders many of the maps truncated. A more flexible approach to presentation may have allowed the reader to luxuriate in a fuller picture of many of the inclusions. Nonetheless, this is an impressive record of the library’s cartographic legacy, and while not exactly positioned as any sort of definitive study on the maps and themes on show, is at least ideal for geographical coffee tables everywhere.