Urban spelunking: World-class AGS collection puts Milwaukee on the map
Call it the worst-kept secret or the best-kept secret – depending on your point of view – but the American Geographical Society Library at UW-Milwaukee's Golda Meir Library is one of the best geography resources in the country.
The collection holds more than a million items, ranging from maps and atlases to pamphlets and journals, globes and photographs of all kinds. Though it is housed in Milwaukee, the AGS collection has roots in New York and covers the entire planet. There is, as you might expect, a little extra focus on Wisconsin.
Recently, Curator Marcy Bidney gave us a tour of the collection, which has maps and globes dating back centuries, as well as up-to-the-minute digital spatial data.
Bidney, who came to AGS Library last October, follows Christopher Baruth, who upon his retirement had been at the library for more than 30 years.
She began our tour with a history of the AGS:
"The American Geographical Society was started in New York in the early 1850s. Their purpose when they started was to be a society of mostly men at the time, who got together to talk about geography. At that point in time, a lot of exploration – trips people were taking and it came out of the desire to compete with the World Geographic Society that had been started at the same time, and then a couple of other foreign geographical societies, and so they decided to start one in New York.
"For a long time, it had a very rich and wonderful history. Some very prominent New Yorkers were members. Franklin Roosevelt was a member, and a lot of the major polar expeditions that happened during that time were performed by members of the society.
"It was about the same time that explorers were going out and collecting things and writing about their experiences, taking photo of the places that they had been, and they were then bringing them back and giving them to the society. Because of that, this collection is really pretty fantastic in the things that we have that reflect the history of the late 19th and 20th centuries as far as geography and exploration were concerned. It came from people who did it."
The collection fills a large space on the third floor of the UWM library and much of the public space is given over to flat files that contain maps. At the entrance is a case displaying some of the rarest and oldest globes in the collection, but the tops of the flat files also are lined with a galaxy of all kinds of globes, including ones from Latvia, Russia and other countries, too, in a variety of languages.
"We buy pretty much everything," said Bidney. "If it's geography related and you have a question or you just want to come and see, we're the place. We aim for completeness because we are one of the major map libraries in the country. If something looks interesting, we buy it.
"We do keep in mind the curriculum at the university and what the students might be studying ... if a particular region is a hot topic at any given time, and we'll try to beef up collections there. We just bought a couple of Syrian/Middle Eastern maps."
Bidney estimates there are about 500,000 maps in the collection, beginning with the earliest, a 1452 map by Italian cartographer Leardo. It is just one of three maps by the maker that are known to exist. The others are in Italian institutions.
The most well-known map these days is the previously lost map of Mexican village Santa Catarina Ixtepeji. The rediscovery of the map in the AGS collection drew international media attention.
Believe it or not, the map, which was known to exist but could not be found, was found rolled up in a desk in Baruth's office.
"We just rediscovered (it) in the collection when my predecessor was retiring while cleaning out this office," said Bidney. "There was a desk that was one of the former presidents of the Geographical Society's – Isaiah Bowman – who was a well-known polar explorer. This scroll was just rolled up in the desk, and it had been in there for a long time. Somebody had pulled it out at one point in time here in Milwaukee, and just figured that it wasn't that big of a deal, rolled it up and put it back in the desk.
"In March of 2012, when Chris was retiring, we pulled it out again and got a second opinion. It turns out that it's a pretty significant document in Mesoamerican cartographic history in a particular part of Mexico."
As hard as that may be to believe, Bidney says it happens more often than you'd think.
"We find things like that – I don't want to say all the time, but it's just … you can open a drawer, and because the collection is so big, for us to know everything that is here is kind of impossible."
The foundation of that problem was inherited when the AGC collection came to Milwaukee in 1978, when AGS was looking to sell the archive and believed the newly constructed UWM library, which had a space ready to accept the collection, would make a good home.
"I can't say that it wasn't well-cataloged, because there's a significantly large card catalog here that we still actively use today," said Bidney. "That is our best record of the early part of the collection. One of the wonderful things that the librarian who started the library did was that she not only cataloged actual maps that came in that were individual maps in and of themselves, or maybe parts of map series, but she cataloged maps that were in books and atlases. That card catalog tells us exactly what we have up until a certain point in time. It's pretty amazing that she did that.
"It was well-documented what we had, but it was terribly disorganized. We really spent the first many years just trying to get things situated and organized. There are still times now that we will just come across some maps that were just put in a drawer because we really didn't know what to do with them at the time when they were trying to make decisions about where they go. It's ongoing."
Bidney estimates that about 30 percent of the collection is cataloged, so researchers rely heavily on the knowledge of library personnel when digging for information. She said staffers spend hours ferreting out useful maps and photographs and information to answer questions for researchers and members of the general public.
One of her reference librarians has been at AGS for more than 30 years.
"If she were to go right now, that would be a huge loss with the institutional knowledge that she has. She's our main reference librarian. We have one cataloger who's responsible for cataloging the 500,000 maps that we have here in the collection, and then we have a photo librarian who's dedicated to our photo collection, which is also pushing 500,000 pieces."
Parts of the photo collection have been digitized and put online, which draws requests for copies – and some much-needed income and publicity – from around the globe.
But, said Bidney, it would be impossible at this point to even consider digitizing the entire collection. The goal, instead, is to get the most significant pieces of the collection online. What is required is time and staff and money.
At the moment the library is utilizing its second major National Endowment for the Humanities grant to digitize photographs from the collection. She and her staff are also working to digitize maps and atlases, a job she calls "a very different animal than digitizing photos, which is almost easy (in comparison)."
Among the other treasures in the collection are hundreds of rare books, including an impressive collection of late 18th and 19th century travel writing, by AGS members who kept journals of their many journeys to every corner of the Earth.
"It's one of the things that we haven't really promoted that much, but in the rare book room you'll see these books that we'll pull off the shelf, and they're beautifully bound and they have these really exquisite drawings on them, and it's somebody's trip that they took to Burma, and so here we have a description of possibly one of the first people going to this place and what it was like at that time. There are, of course, other editions of these volumes in other places, too, but some of them don't. That's the unique part."
When on road trips, I asked, does Bidney use the maps app on her phone or does she prefer a traditional folding paper map?
"I am, traditionally, a map user," she said. "I use the GPS on my phone when I'm at a particular place, but I really try to not rely on it to get back and forth, because I'd like to use a map. For me, a map is better because you get a larger view of where you're going and where you've come from, and you can plan better than trying to scroll around on your phone.
"I think there is still very much a place for paper maps in the world, but there's also a place for technology and the way that it can enhance geography. The technology that allows any user to create a map of whatever anybody might want to create a map of is really good, because it's making people think about things more spatially than they have before.
"People in the humanities have used maps forever, but they can use them now in different ways because the technology has changed so much that it's changing some research methods. It's allowing them to look at research questions that they've asked in different ways, and come up with new questions to ask and questions that would never have even bubbled up to the surface if we had not had the technology advance to what it is."
But there are downsides, too, she said.
"The technology ... diminishes our understanding of geography and our place, because we are then focused on the place we get on our phone or our GPS screen, and we're so focused on getting to that other place and we're always checking the phone/GPS. We're not looking outside or paying attention to the surroundings. That changes things as well, and there are a number of people who are writing about what the effect of technology has on people's understanding of their place in geography, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? It's a challenge, for sure. It's something that needs to be looked at and thought about, but it's also fun to see where things might go."
A champion map folder, Bidney – who pointed out that AGS offers GIS (geographic information system) services – said that while technology is making mapping and access to maps easier it does present profound problems for map librarians and archivists.
"I came to the realization for particular places like Angola, where it is very difficult to find a map of Luanda, which is the capital. You can't just go to the store and buy a map of Luanda. If a student walks in here and says they need a map of Luanda, Angola, my first move, if they need a modern map of it, is to go to Google Maps, because that is going to be the best representation right now, in this day and age, of that place.
"You can see some very interesting things using Google Maps, and then that opens up this whole other can of worms about archiving and saving, and what happens when that map and imagery gets updated – what happens to the old maps? Where then is the historical record of this place anymore, because it's all out there and gone? What happens to the old data once you've updated that? In a print world, we purchase a copy of an atlas; we have that on the shelf. Five or 10 years later, a new edition of that atlas comes out, and we purchase that copy, but we still have this old copy as the historical record and we can compare the changes. That is troubling, because I feel like we're losing a little bit of control over the history of place, and what should be kept and right now, nobody's keeping it. That part stresses me out more than I ever thought that it would.
"I've said for a number of years now, it's a great time to be a map librarian, because despite all of those things that are troubling as far as the technology and data is concerned, it's also really exciting to see where this is going. It's changing every day and it keeps it very interesting, and how do we figure out the answers to these questions."
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