Maps of Americas past
San Francisco collector donates 150,000 maps to Stanford
Julie Sweetkind-Singer, head librarian of the Branner Earth Sciences Library, holds a pocket map of Mexico from 1847.
Julie Sweetkind-Singer, head librarian of the Branner Earth Sciences Library, looks through a world atlas published in France in 1742, titled de L’isle Atlas Nouveau. Map collector David Rumsey donated the first batch of his collection of 150,000 maps of the Americas, most of them drawn between 1700 and 1925.
When it comes to finding your way through the world, there's no tool more helpful or basic than a map. Maps make for familiar traveling companions stuffed in a car's glove compartment, crumpled in a hiker's backpack or neatly folded in a tourist's pocket.
Sometimes they take on deeper dimensions than simple place finders. The pretty ones are framed, and the historic ones often are locked out of sight.
But David Rumsey's maps—all 150,000 of them—have taken on a life and purpose of their own. After three decades of collecting maps of the Americas, most of which were drawn between 1700 and 1925, the retired San Francisco real estate developer is posting much of his collection online and donating his original pieces and their digitized images to Stanford.
"Stanford is a pioneer in the digital library world," said Rumsey. "When I was thinking of who to give my collection to, I wanted to ensure the preservation not only of the original materials but also the digital copies I made. I knew Stanford would be the best place for them."
For Stanford, the Rumsey maps that will be housed in the University Libraries' Special Collections "help create one of the premier cartographic collections of American history in the United States," said Julie Sweetkind-Singer, head librarian of the Branner Earth Sciences Library and Map Collections. Rumsey's digital map images and website will be kept in Stanford's digital preservation archive. By giving the physical maps, their digital images and his database to Stanford, Rumsey hopes to encourage other donors to give their original pieces along with digital copies at the same time.
Sweetkind-Singer has been cataloging the first batch of maps recently handed over by Rumsey—20 items valued at more than $1 million that include wall maps, world atlases and pocket maps. While Rumsey's agreement with Stanford calls for his entire collection to be donated, details of when certain maps will be given to the university remain to be worked out.
For now, there's plenty to satisfy the cartographically curious.
Folded into a first edition of Lewis and Clark's 1814 travel book chronicling their trek across the American West a decade earlier is a map showing the first published depiction of the Rocky Mountains. Along with useful information written in the middle of the range, like "these mountains are covered with snow," the duo marked American Indian territory in places like the Columbia Valley ("Shoshones or Snake Indians 2000 souls") and throughout the Louisiana Purchase territory ("Black Foot Indians 3500 souls").
Lewis and Clark's groundbreaking information on the Rockies was copied onto the last edition of cartographer John Melish's map of the United States published in 1823. Backed with linen and bordered with silk, the map draws attention to the Northeast, with its cluster of well-defined states cluttered with the names of cities and towns that sometimes spill over state lines. Moving west, the country opens up and borders relax as the frontier expands. Just before the Pacific Ocean, the words "unexplored country" stretch over what is now California and Nevada.
"Maps show historic events and development really vividly," Rumsey said. "Every time I look at an old map, I think, 'How is the world different today than it was when it was made?'"
Fascinated with the details and exotic places plotted in the inserts that came folded in the National Geographic magazines he subscribed to as a kid, Rumsey said his appreciation for maps grew while he was an art student at Yale. But he didn't get serious about collecting them until his late 30s, when he came across an 1839 atlas showing Texas as an independent republic.
"That just jumped out at me," Rumsey, 64, said. "Seeing Texas on a map as a separate country really did something to me."
From there, he started gathering as much as he could while trying to limit himself to 18th- and 19th-century maps of the Americas.
"I was getting 30 to 40 boxes of maps sent to me a day," Rumsey said. "The UPS driver practically lived in my house."
In order to keep track of his fast-growing inventory, Rumsey created a database that would later serve as the foundation for his online catalog.
"I was collecting for my own intellectual satisfaction in the beginning," Rumsey said. "As it got bigger over the years, I thought about where it fits in with other collections that exist and what I would do with it."
As he made a name for himself in the world of map collecting, the Library of Congress asked if he would donate his collection. He found the idea intriguing but was worried people wouldn't have the chance to study and enjoy the maps as he did.
"I didn't want them locked in a vault," he said.
That was in the 1990s, and the Internet was offering the promise of being able to share free images and information around the world.
"I realized I could give the collection to the general public," Rumsey said. "I didn't want to sell the images. I wanted people to be able to easily see them."
In 1999, he started digitizing the images with Sweetkind-Singer, who was not yet working at Stanford. The website they created went live in 2000, and after some technical and design tweaking, Rumsey has managed to post about 18,500 images to http://www.davidrumsey.com and plans to add about 3,000 to 5,000 a year. Some of his maps also can be seen on Google Earth and Second Life.
"The goal right now is to digitize 50,000 maps," Rumsey said. "We should get there in another 10 years. I'm not actively collecting anymore, so I can focus on doing this now."