By DONNA URSCHEL
Atreasure-trove of maps—including a 1482 Ptolemy atlas, a 1559 portolan chart of the Mediterranean, a 1777 spy map of British troop positions in Princeton, N.J., three maps of the Battle of Gettysburg and many more—was on display at a Geography and Map Division (G&M) open house on April 17.
G&M pulled together an overview of its map collection for participants in the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) annual meeting in Washington, D.C., with more than 200 enthusiastic visitors attending.
“This is real, real cool—to see the originals. It is just fantastic,” said Karsten Shein, a geographer with the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C. “I wish these maps could be on permanent public display.”
According to John R. Hébert, chief of G&M, the AAG conference (April 14-18) attracted more than 8,000 participants from around the world. During the week, these geographers created a constant flow into the G&M Reading Room to visit and conduct research.
The open house was an added opportunity to share the collections with an interested and engaged audience. “We were able to show some of our great resources, both current and historical items,” Hébert said. “We also demonstrated our geographic information system’s (GIS) capabilities.” (GIS allows geographers to digitally layer maps with information to extract patterns and trends.)
Hébert said the open house was rewarding because “we had a chance to field serious research queries from those who will likely return to conduct in-depth research on topics from human terrain issues in Iraq and Afghanistan to the mapping of elections in the United States.”
The G&M staff greeted the open-house guests in the reading room, where many of the maps were displayed on tables. Some of the items on view were election maps from the United States and Germany; land-ownership maps; an 1886 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Tombstone, Ariz., which shows the famous O.K. Corral; three maps by Benjamin Franklin of the Atlantic Gulf Stream (1768, 1785 and 1786); and celestial maps.
After perusing the reading room, the guests lined up for tours through the G&M vault. The most important maps in the Library’s collections are stored in the closely guarded vault. Some 15 maps were on view here, including the 1559 Mateo Prunes portolan chart of the Mediterranean, one of the more colorful and descriptive items in the Library’s rich portolan chart collection.
Also in the vault was the 1777 spy map of the British troops in Princeton, N.J., apparently drawn by a Princeton student who was a patriot and who managed to get the map into the hands of George Washington. The vital information in this map about British troop positions, defensive fortifications, cannon locations and an unprotected back road helped Washington’s Revolutionary forces defeat the British in the battle on Jan. 3, 1777.
Other interesting items in the vault were the 1482 Ptolemy atlas, an important atlas showing Ptolemy’s view of the world published 10 years before the discovery of America; three maps drawn by George Washington, all pre-Revolutionary War surveys of Alexandria, Va.; and a 1945 map by U.S. Navy Underwater Demolition Teams, the forerunner of today’s Navy Seals, of the Okinawa beaches.
Also on display were the woodblocks from the 1812 Boston Gazette cartoon “The Gerry-Mander.” This political cartoon led to the coining of the term gerrymander, the modifying of electoral-district boundaries to achieve desired electoral results. The district depicted in the cartoon was created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the incumbent Democratic-Republican Party candidates backed by Gov. Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists.
C. Winston Mullen, a high-school geography and social studies teacher from Lacey, Wash., was quite impressed with the woodblocks. “I’ve been studying and teaching gerrymandering and political science for a long time. And to see the original woodblocks of this cartoon is something I never thought I’d experience,” he said.
After the vault, the G&M staff continued their tours into the stacks, where they explained the extent of the division’s collections. Many of the guests were impressed by the sheer size of the area, the equivalent of two consecutive football fields.
Several maps were on display in the stacks, including a large relief map, made out of rubber, of Utah beach and the surrounding area in World War II. This military map was prepared from aerial photographs and demarcates hedgerows, farms, fortifications and roads. Ed Redmond, a reference specialist in G&M, said the map was used to brief high-level military officers before the invasion of Normandy.
A steady stream of geographers visited the open house. “If we had been open all day, the crowds would have continued to pour in,” said Hébert.
“The G&M staff who participated in the open house or assisted as we prepared for the event during the week are owed a debt of gratitude,” said Hébert. “They led tours, answered questions on all facets of the division and its collections, and even escorted some of the visitors to the Waldseemüller and Ricci map exhibitions in the Jefferson Building.”
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.