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Trace the past with NY Public Library's Open Access Maps Project

GPS can't quite capture the beauty of historical maps. Thanks to the Lionel Pincus & Princess Firyal Map Division at the New York Public Library, 20,000 high-res maps are now available for download.

This map of New York circa 1909 can be downloaded. New York Public Library

For over 15 years, the Lionel Pincus & Princess Firyal Map Division at the New York Public Library has been scanning maps from all over the world including those of the Mid-Atlantic United States from 16th to 19th centuries and even topographic maps of Austro-Hungarian empire ranging from 1877 and 1914.

Most notably, the NYPL has scanned more than 10,300 maps from property, zoning, and topographic atlases of New York City dating from 1852 to 1922.

There's also a "diverse collection of more than 1,000 maps of New York City, its boroughs and neighborhoods, dating from 1660 to 1922, which detail transportation, vice, real estate development, urban renewal, industrial development and pollution, political geography among many, many other things," NYPL posted in late March on its blog.

These and many more of the 20,000 cartographic works scanned are now available as high-resolution downloads for anyone who wants to visit their site.

"We believe these maps have no known US copyright restrictions," NYPL posted. "To the extent that some jurisdictions grant NYPL an additional copyright in the digital reproductions of these maps, NYPL is distributing these images under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication."

This is great news for map collectors and enthusiasts who want a glimpse into the history of cartography. "You can have the maps, all of them if you want, for free, in high resolution," NYPL posted. "We've scanned them to enable their use in the broadest possible ways by the largest number of people. We believe our collections inspire all kinds of creativity, innovation and discovery, things the NYPL holds very dear."

The maps can be viewed through the NYPL's Digital Collections page and downloaded through the Map Warper -- which is a tool for rectifying historical maps to match today's current maps.

Be forewarned, visitors might find themselves spending endless hours on the site looking at panoramic views of Brooklyn, submarine rail maps between New York and New Jersey, and a detailed map of Woodlawn Cemetery.

"We in the Map Division are all very excited about this release and look forward to seeing these maps in works of art, historical publications, movies, archaeological reports, novels, environmental remediation efforts, urban planning studies and more," NYPL wrote. "Enjoy!"

Here is a map of Woodlawn Cemetery circa 1870. New York Public Library