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Rare Globes From the 1600s Are Being Digitized So You Can Spin Them Online

Restoring an under-utilised resource to its glory days
David Neikirk is 3D imaging a vintage globe. Image: Osher Map Library

If you had a globe as a kid, you'll probably remember the joy of spinning the world around with your grimy fingers. Now you can rotate a vintage globe from 400 years ago from the comfort of your computer screen.

Researchers at the Osher Map Library (OML) and Smith Center for Cartographic Education at the University of Southern Maine are making a series of historic globes, some over 400-years-old, accessible online in all their 3D rotatable and interactive glory. Their work is supported by a $60k (£43k) National Endowment for the Humanities Fund.


"Globes are one of the most under-utilised collection in any library or museum in the world," Ian Fowler, director of OML, told me over the phone. "They serve an important purpose not only in the history of cartography, but also as objects in themselves."

The conservation and digitization team set out to create a virtual space where users from all around the world could not only turn, swivel, and zoom onto the historic globes as they wish, but also learn about them through the manuals that were published alongside them. Some highlights in the collection, according to Fowler, are Dutch cartographer Willem Janszoon Blaeu's celestial globes from 1603 and 1606. Celestial globes are spherical objects that display the constellations.

Old globes are pretty fragile—they can easily be worn down by the grime, dirt, and oil on people's hands. So, in order to ready the globes for a second digital life, Fowler explained that first they had to be sent to Boston and restored so that they were stable enough to be imaged.

Willem Janszoon Blaeu's celestial globe from 1607. Image: Osher Maps Library

Globes from the past are usually made of plaster wood, and have paper gores overlaid on them. Fowler likened a gore to a segment of orange peel that is pointed at the top, then fat in the middle.

"The conservation process involves removing each of those (there are usually 12 to 26 per globe), then conserving them individually, before reattaching them to the globe," said Fowler, noting that it took the team a year to work on the first nine globes out 16, which are currently available to view online.


Next up, David Neikirk, OML's Digital Imaging Coordinator, used 3D imaging software from Ortery Technologies Inc, a photography automation company, to model the globes. Neikirk placed a globe on a rotatable turntable, and a camera attached to the table took shots from all angles as it moved. Software then combined all the images collected to create an online interactive globe.

According to Neikirk, unlike other institutions whose digitization process relies on imaging and uploading flat, 2D images, the OML team used 3D imaging to capture the entirety of a 3D artefact. The former method, said Neikirk, makes "maintaining the original mathematical correctness of the globe difficult."

It took Neikirk around one to two weeks to do the imaging then another week for the post-production. Though he said it is difficult to get the depth of field and colour down to a tee when 3D imaging the globes, the method has proved pretty economical so far with the process of imaging one globe costing around 400 dollars.

Ultimately, the group is happy that it's been able to give its globes a second life, and to re-promote their original importance in both the spheres of geography and cartography.

"The entire goal of the project was not only to create 3D images of the globes online, but also to tie them back to their original cartographic and pedagogical function," said Fowler.