Sunday, April 20, 2014

Advertise with us »

Navigating the University's treasured maps

Senior Arts Editor
Published September 19, 2010

Whether you realize it or not, maps likely got you to where you are today. You’ve quizzically stared at the impossible-to-fold ones in your car on the side of the road, you’ve labeled states and capitols on a colorful America in grade school and you’ve been saved many times from first-day lateness by the “you are here” labels on the plaques in academic buildings. And while you appreciate topographical depictions when they point you in the right direction, you might not stop and think about them much otherwise.

But at the University, there are people who see maps for much more than their surface application. They create culture so big there are two major cartography collections on campus: the Map Library in Hatcher Graduate Library and the collection in the William L. Clements Library. Here, maps are valued as works of art.

Founded in 1923, the Clements Library started with alum and former regent William L. Clements’s personal collection of historic documents and manuscripts, which contained several hundred maps. Clements made a fortune supplying materials for the construction of the Panama Canal and combed auctions of private libraries and estate sales of aristocrats to obtain his obscenely large collection. The Clements Library has expanded greatly in the past 87 years and is now home to 30,000 charts of the Americas dating from the 15th century to the 20th. Nearly every pre-1820 map of the Americas is included among the originals and copies that form the collection, which is accessible for student observation through appointment.

“The map collection at Clements is a more historical map collection,” said Brian Dunnigan, curator of the Clements collection. “It documents the growth and cartographic knowledge of the Americas from the time of Columbus up until, for the most part, about 1900.”

While old maps are often valued for their historical significance, many also contain ornate designs, giving them significant artistic value as well.

“I would especially say for the manuscript maps, they are decorative — they are certainly functional for the most part — but they are definitely a form of art,” Dunnigan said.

Long before GPS and satellites, maps were often drawn and colored by hand. Pictures were used to denote landmarks and land ownership or simply to add a little flair to the document. Ships were placed in the harbors and oceans, windmills graced the countrysides and yellows, reds and blues marked divided properties. Certainly, you don’t find this ornamentation on your TomTom or Garmin.

“You can see that with printed maps, they get more scientific as you get into the late 18th, early 19th century,” Dunnigan said. “They start to lose a lot of the decorative elements that you see on the earlier maps.”

While it’s true that over time maps get more factual and less creative, it can still be argued that modern maps retain a sense of aesthetics and illustrate cultural relevance.

“I want to say (maps) stopped being art at a certain time, but they didn’t,” said Tim Utter, the access and information services librarian for the Map Library at Hatcher Graduate Library. “What happened is maps started to be more scientific. In a way, science kind of took over, and that’s fine because the maps are more accurate, and that’s great and very important. You want to have an accurate map.”

The Map Library where Utter works is on the top floor of the Hatcher. The lesser-known room on campus is full of wide filing cabinets with shallow shelves for maps of all sizes. It hosts the largest collection of maps in the state, with more than 320,000 maps (celestial, topographical, electronic and more) and 8,000 atlases, both historic and modern.

“Here at Hatcher, we collect any kind of map, anything that has to do with maps — anything,” Utter said. “It could be a baseball with a map on it. We have playing cards with maps.