Despite the relevance of maps to many fields of historical study in the humanities and the social sciences, academic responsibility for the study of early maps has tended to be nobody's business. Full length university courses are rare (there are at present only two professorial chairs in the subject in the world, both in the USA). A promising new development at postgraduate level are the short but intensive, taught history of maps and mapping courses in London under the aegis of the London Rare Book School of the University of London. Map historians are geographically dispersed in the world and heterogeneous in terms of professional background, but are held together by three international institutions – the flagship scholarly journal Imago Mundi, a series of biennial international conferences (22 till date), the already mentioned History of Cartography Project – and specific Internet portals. From 1994, the journal Imago Mundi has been subtitled The International Journal for the History of Cartography. When it was founded in Berlin in 1935, by the emigre Russian map collector Leo Bagrow (later author of a substantial book entitled, History of Cartography, published in German in 1951, in English in 1964 and, with R. A. Skelton, 1966) the journal's title was Iarbuch der alten Kartographie. Yearbook of Old Cartography. The second issue, published in London in 1938, was titled Imago Mundi: A Periodical Review of Early Cartography. After a peripatetic existence, with publication successively in Stockholm, Leiden, The Hague and Amsterdam, Imago Mundi returned to London in 1974, under the directorship of Imago Mundi Ltd., where it has since remained. Bagrow was the editor until 1957, but the character he gave his journal continued to shape it even after his death that year; his interests as a collector, like his definition of 'early maps' (nothing after 1800) still limited the journal's concern to the 'externals of maps' and the exclusion of ''any examination of their content, of scientific methods of mapmaking, of the way the material is collected, or of the compilation of maps'' (Bagrow, 1951: 13; Bagrow and Skelton, 1964: 22). Changes did come eventually, and the 59 volumes published up to 2007 can be taken as a barometer of the subject in general. In 1986, Harley criticized Imago Mundi for ''its antiquarian and bibliographical bias,'' for its ''lack of philosophical and methodological direction,'' and for its bias toward description rather than interpretation. In keeping with the shift in the subject outlined above, and measured against papers presented at the international conferences (for which the journal's owner, Imago Mundi Ltd. acts as the coordinating body) as well as on its own contents pages, the decade straddling the turn of the millennium has witnessed something of a sea change. In external appearance, and in basic internal structure (refereed illustrated articles and shorter articles, book reviews, obituaries, chronicle, bibliography, and notices), it remains much the same as in Bagrow's day and that of his successor as editor, Professor Eila Campbell, a London University geographer. More significant than the current editor's addition of abstracts in four languages (English, French, German, and Spanish; which in some measure compensates for the fact that all articles are in English) is the journal's request for empirical, interpretative, and theoretical contributions, and the recognition that most of the twentieth century now is, or can be presented as, history; Bagrow's 'early' now extends to any kind of noncurrent map. Authors contributing to the 14 volumes published between 1994 and 2008, wrote from 22 different countries (57% from the United Kingdom and the United States of America) and represented 16 subject areas (history accounting for 44%; geography, 42%; and history of art, 10% of the contributors professional base). They covered periods from antiquity (a recently discovered map on papyrus from the early first century BC, and revisionary thoughts on the later Roman Peutinger map) to maps in World War II and in post war Israel. While articles on maps made before 1600 continue to account for more than half the total published in Imago Mundi, interest in maps made in the twentieth century as 'history' is slow to increase.

The first International Conferences on the History of Cartography (ICHC) were held in London in 1964 (on the occasion of the UK Congress of the International Geographical Union) and in 1967. Thereafter, meetings have taken place every 2 years in a different country. Insofar as the directors of Imago Mundi Ltd. are responsible for the academic standing of the conferences, as well as their continuity, the papers and posters presented at each conference parallel the articles published in the journal Imago Mundi as a reflection of the subject. In all other respects, each conference is autonomous. Four meetings have been held in the twenty first century (Madrid in 2001; Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine, in 2003; Budapest in 2005; and Berne in 2007). At the last, participants from 38 countries attended, presenting more than a hundred papers and posters. A Short History and Bibliography of Papers presented at all ICHC meetings since 1964, compiled and regularly updated by Douglas W. Sims and Peter van der Krogt are available on the Universiteit Utrecht website.

The History of Cartography Project was officially launched in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1981. As Woodward recounted, its inception dated back to May 1977, when he and Harley walked near the latter's home in Newton Abbot, Devon, discussing an older project of Harley's (a four volume text on the Mapping of North America). Dissuaded from the latter, Harley agreed to a joint venture to edit instead, with Woodward, four volumes of a worldwide History of Cartography, covering: (1) the prehistoric, classical, and medieval periods together with cartography in the non Western world; (2) the Renaissance; (3) the Enlightenment; and (4) the nineteenth-century. By 1982, well into preparations for the first volume, it had become clear that a separate volume would be needed to account for the richness and diversity of the non Western material. It was also accepted that a sixth volume would be needed for the twentieth century. By the time of Harley's sudden death, only Volume 1 – Prehistoric, Ancient and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean – had been published, to widespread acclaim (it was awarded the best book in the humanities by the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers). It involved ten authors from three countries (seven from the UK). The three books of Volume 2 – Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies (awarded the R. R. Hawkins Award for the best scholarly book by the Association of American Publishers), Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Societies, both under the names of Harley and Woodward, and Cartography in the Traditional African, American, Arctic, Australian, and Pacific Societies (awarded the Henry Breasted Prize by the American Historical Association), edited by Woodward and G. Malcolm Lewis – includes essays by 34 authors from nine countries. Volume 3 – Cartography in the European Renaissance, was edited by David Woodward, although published posthumously in 2007, to which, 64 authors from 14 countries have contributed.

Underpinning the entire project is a broadly chronological framework adapted as necessary to the requirements of the individual volumes. It was Volume 1 that, by announcing a new definition, broadcast to the wider world the new emphasis on the history of maps and mapping, rather than on the technical aspects of cartography, as much as Harley's theoretical essays were doing more or less concurrently. Volume 2 demonstrated the liberating impact of that definition in terms of the nature of the material dealt with – many maps in Asia were created in the context of religious belief, and represent the imagined structure of the cosmos, the path from this world to the next, or depict pilgrimage routes to holy places – or corrected long established myths in the anthropological and history of cartography literature about, for example, the function of the stick charts of the Pacific Marshall Islanders. In focusing on European maps produced between c. 1470 and c. 1640, Volume 3 deals with more familiar subject matter, but here too Woodward continued to promote the new approach to the history of maps and mapping by defining the general aim as ''to describe the many levels on which maps became a central means to structure and understand the world, and how maps offered the means to articulate a cultural and political understanding of the state'' (Woodward, 2001: 26). A similar epistemology is shaping the remaining three volumes (Cartography in the European Enlightenment; Cartography in the Nineteenth Century; Cartography in the Twentieth Century) for which changes already in train concern the format of the entries, not the intellectual approach (they are to be encyclopedic entries, instead of the long regional and thematic essays of previous volumes); the list is incomplete at the time of writing, but already 180 authors from 22 countries are signed up for Volume 4 (edited by Matthew Edney and Mary S. Pedley). Whereas by no means all those who have contributed to The History of Cartography would describe themselves specifically as historians of maps, all are scholars who have addressed maps in their own work and whose interests lie in describing the cultural, social, and intellectual influence that maps gained as both as tools and visual icons in their contexts.

One of the challenges anticipated by Woodward in connection with writing the history of the twentieth century is ''the affinity of the first two thirds of the century with much of the nineteenth-century in terms of cartographic compilation, representation, and reproduction,'' meaning that the division of a 'long nineteenth-century' between two volumes could be considered artificial; a more significant break, he observed, would be between a predigital and a postdigital age. A problem of a different order comes from the diversity and vulnerability of maps in this century. Ironically, although a greater number of maps have been produced in the twentieth century than in any previous period (it was said in 1999 that between 10 and 20 million maps are made everyday), the rate of loss has been, arguably, also unparalleled, either through the catastrophic physical destructiveness of the two world wars, which obliterated entire archives and libraries and many unique examples of early maps (the huge medieval Ebstorf map, lost in the bombing of Dresden, springs to mind) or simply because, increasingly in the digital age, maps are not intended to last. The corollary of the digital cartographers' 'continuous revision' is continuous obsolescence; is the twenty first century to be the first without the materials for writing its cartographic history?

On a daily basis, the Internet provides a number of services for anybody interested in the history of cartography. The web allows information to be presented in a dynamic rather than a static form, which means that updates that used to take many months to be published can be implemented immediately. It also attracts a wider audience than could be reached by traditional methods of publication, and has greatly increased awareness of, and interest in, the issues raised. The primary point of entry is the permanent site (i.e., listed in the 'Internet Archive') Map History/History of Cartography: THE Gateway to the Subject, which documents activities and resources relating to the history of cartography, and provides links to where these are described. The Map History site also contains the only systematic bibliography of relevant web publications, including two journals that are now available only online, and others that are available in searchable form online as well as in print, and provides access to a number of major external initiatives. These include the 700 member MapHist Internet discussion list (presently monitored from Utrecht); the regularly updated 'Calendars' of events and exhibitions maintained by John Docktor (USA); and Matthew Edney's ongoing list of theoretical work, Recent Trends in the History of Cartography: A Selective, Annotated Bibliography to the English Language Literature. To be included is the tenth edition of The International Directory of Current Researchers in the History of Cartography, in preparation for exclusive online publication for the first time.

Whatever the future may hold for the twenty first century, the challenge of the maps still packed into national archives, state and other institutional libraries, and private collections remains. The 'discovery' of a hitherto uncataloged or unrecognized early map is an almost daily occurrence. Not all the private great houses, in the UK and elsewhere, open their doors to researchers, and one wonders how many missing links in the history of maps lie hidden therein. One thing is clear, the history of maps and mapping has come to maturity with a holistic agenda. It is no longer a purely antiquarian pursuit, or handmaiden to modern mapmaking, but a respectable and respected subfield of history.