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How do you digitally scan a world map from Columbus’ time? Very carefully.

A map from 1493 will join thousands of others accessible online through work now underway at the Tampa Bay History Center.
At the Tampa Bay History Center, Thomas English of Creekside Digital uses high definition photography to digitally scan one of the first maps of Tampa, from 1853. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] [OCTAVIO JONES | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times]
Published Aug. 20
Updated Aug. 20

TAMPA — You remember the children’s poem: “In fourteen-hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue."

Back in the explorer’s day, though, you’d never know it from the maps. They didn’t depict the New World he landed upon until the early 1500s.

That makes one map that found its way to Tampa very special. Drawn up in 1493, and now part of the Tampa Bay History Center’s Touchton Map Library, the document offers no hint about the Americas.

“The news had to travel by ship back to Europe, get verified and then disseminated,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, director of the Touchton Library. “Information was slow to be shared back.”

Now, thanks to modern digital technology, the document demonstrates how sharing has developed into an instantaneous process.

The 1493 map is among about 2,000 from the Touchton library that are undergoing digital scanning from July 19 through the end of this week.

In two months, all of them will be accessible on the history center’s website — already home to 3,000 digital maps from the center’s cartographic collection. These were scanned last year.

“You can pull them up on your phone from anywhere in the world,” Kite-Powell said. “The ability to share information is what has revolutionized this world.”

RELATED STORY: Want to explore history up close? USF’s 3D scanning project makes it happen

A map of the known world from 1493 is part of the Tampa Bay History Center's Touchton Map Library. It has been digitally scanned and will be among 5,000 maps accessible through the history center's website. [Tampa Bay History Center] [TAMPA BAY HISTORY CENTER | Tampa Bay History Center]

The library’s collection of 6,000 physical maps is made up of documents donated by its namesake, Thomas Touchton, a retired businessman and philanthropist who led the fund-raising drive to start the History Center, and by Hillsborough County and the University of South Florida. The collection also includes depictions of the Caribbean, Florida and the Tampa Bay area.

The oldest is the map from 1493. The most recent is a year-old map of county bike lanes.

So how does someone scan a 526-year-old map?

“Very carefully,” said Tom English of Maryland-based Creekside Digital, who is leading this project. “I handle them as minimally as possible.”

And never use gloves, added Malerie Dorman, the History Center’s curator of collections.

“You’d lose your tactile sensation,” she said. “It is better to do this with dry hands.”

Each map is placed on a vacuum table to pull it flat.

One of the first maps of Tampa dating back to 1853 is digitally scanned by Thomas English of Creekside Digital at the Tampa Bay History Center. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

A 100-megapixel camera with a 90-millimeter lens shoots overhead photos with a resolution of 300 pixels per inch so that the most intricate features of each map can be clearly seen.

Larger maps are photographed in panels and then digitally stitched together back in the shop in Maryland, English said.

Hundreds of years ago, maps were not mass-produced at the rate they are today because the process was so tedious, library director Kite-Powell said.

A backwards image of the map was carved into wood.

“They would then ink the block and press down onto a piece of paper to transfer it,” Kite-Powell said.

Still, the paper was of better quality back then.

“It was more of a cotton rag and now it is all pulp,” Kite-Powell said. “So those stood a better chance of lasting 500 years."

The digital endeavor is funded through a $95,000 Hillsborough County Historic Preservation Challenge Grant.

Kite-Powell hopes to receive another grant and bring Creekside back in 18 months to finish scanning the collection.

The maps are vital for scholarly research, but they have a practical application, too, Kite-Powell said. Potential home buyers can see the history of how a property has been used, for example.

On Monday, Creekside’s English scanned a map from 1853 when Tampa was classified as a village.

Its boundaries were Whiting Street to the south, Oaklawn Cemetery and Harrison Street to the north, Hillsborough River to the west and East Street to the east.

One of the first maps of Tampa dating back to 1853 is digitally scanned by Thomas English of Creekside Digital at the Tampa Bay History Center. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times] [OCTAVIO JONES | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times]

“Those would then become the limits when Tampa was incorporated in 1855," Kite-Powell said. “Even today, that map is referenced during the exchange of properties. The county has always maintained a copy.”

Soon, he said, with a few clicks of their keyboards, everyone will have access to the historic document.

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