Mapping out a career at the 'U'


Published October 24, 2006

When Brian Dunnigan was young, he didn't dream of spending his days with maps at a historical library.

"I think I can probably safely say that very few people set out to be map curators," Dunnigan said, leaning forward in an antique chair in the grandiose main room of the William Clements Library.

But Dunnigan, the library's map curator, has warmed to his position. He oversees the library's map collection, more than 40,000 strong, with at least 500 atlases. He works 40 hours a week looking after maps some dating back more than five hundred years. The shelves in the main room hold thousands of antique books, many of them, Dunnigan said, with valuable maps folded inside the pages.

But the real work goes on underground, where most storage rooms and offices are housed. From his basement corner office, Dunnigan tends to the library's formidable map collection and finds time to write and research his own projects.

Dunnigan is also responsible for aiding researchers who come in to view or use the maps. He's assisted people working on a broad variety of projects, including a member of the New Zealand parliament, renowned author David McCullough, many archaeologists and even more professors.

The library holds an original or a copy of every map of America printed since 1820, with the exception of five, which a recent acquisition will make four.

Dunnigan put together the library's current special exhibit on the cartographic information that would have been available to the Britons during Shakespeare's time. He said the exhibit, which coincides with the performances of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has not been met with much excitement from the players themselves. At least not yet.

"If (the greeter) sees Patrick Stewart walk in the door, he'll be sure to call me," Dunnigan said.

Dunnigan said his greatest fear is the possibility that one of the maps will be damaged or stolen. But he added that outside a few close calls with a leak in the storage room, the maps are extremely secure.

Despite having unusual fears and working in a basement underneath millions of dollars worth of historical books and manuscripts, Dunnigan said life in the library isn't too abnormal.

"We try to be as regular as we can be," he said.

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