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Review: Terra Nostra

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Terra Nostra 1550 – 1950: The Stories Behind Canada’s Maps
Jeffrey S. Murray
McGill – Queen’s University Press / Septentrion

ISBN 0-660-19496-1
23.5 cm x 31 cm
192 pp, hard cover
$46.95 CDN

Jeffrey Murray spends his days working for Library and Archives Canada, tending its collection of 1.7 million old maps, what he considers to be the best job in the world. That’s entirely understandable, if the maps and artifacts included in Terra Nostra are anything to go by. The book is a short, 192 page salute to the collection as a whole – there is no focusing on the “gems” of the collection. Rather, Murray takes a moderately successful approach to highlighting the holdings of Library and Archives Canada by looking at time periods and trends.

The book has four broad areas of focus which he entitles “Envisioning Canada,” “Perfecting Our Cities,” “Finding Our Way,” and “Scaling the Landscape.” Each of these areas is further subdivided into more specific chapters that look at a specific type of mapping or period in Canada’s cartographic history. By doing so, Murray provides a light but interesting sketch of history of mapping in Canada.

Chapters focus on the early attempts at mapping North America as European explorers sought out the much fabled Northwest Passage, British mapping of newly conquered Quebec in the 1700s, insurance mapping, bird’s-eye mapping, county maps of the late 1800s and maps of the First World War. Each chapter is short, easy to read and is accompanied with many illustrations. More interesting from a technical perspective, each contains a two page description of the mapping technologies of the time, including woodblock, offset and sun printing. No convenient computer technology here.

Which raises the question in my mind: why stop at 1950? Aside from the convenience of bookending the collection between two dates 400 years apart, I could not see any reason why Murray did not extend the parameters of the book to include maps up to 2000. Surely the rapid change in technologies since then would have easily provided enough material for additional chapters and would have offered a better sense of progression in mapping in Canada?

Though there are many illustrations and maps there are, from the map lover’s perspective, never enough and never enough that show detail. This is not a limitation of the book but rather of the media: hundreds of pages of colour reproductions would make the book too expensive for the market. A simple web link to the Libray and Archives Canada holdings would not be remiss. Nevertheless, the book is a nice overview of Library and Archives Canada’s collection of old maps – a great addition for the coffee table collection.

The book is also available in French as Terra Nostra 1550 – 1950: Les cartes du Canada et leurs secrets from Les Éditions Septentrion.

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