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Spring 2010
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"Crossing Borders"
A column by Doug Richardson,
Executive Director, Association of American Geographers


The Library of Congress: Geography's Treasury

photo of Doug RichardsonIt's been 25 years since the AAG held its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., so attendees from around the world will have a lot to do this spring when it comes to catching up on the extraordinary cultural and geographic research institutions in this famously archival city. What better place to start than the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress?

Several major events at the AAG Annual Meeting will help geographers and GIS specialists experience the Library of Congress (LoC), with a special focus on the treasures and scholarly resources of its Geography and Map Division. But as it is the largest library in the world and holds extensive historical and current GIS, book, and periodical collections on every imaginable geographic topic, a brief history of the collection might both whet your appetite and prepare you for the sheer volume of its holdings.

The Library of Congress

Briefly, the Library of Congress was established by an act of Congress in 1800 upon the transfer of the capital from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C. The legislation initially envisioned a reference library for Congress only, containing "such books as may be necessary for the use of Congress—and for putting up a suitable apartment for containing them therein . . ."

The original library was housed in the Capitol itself until August 1814, when our colleagues from Britain visited and set fire to the Capitol Building, burning and pillaging the fledgling library in its cozy apartment, together with its comfortable leather chairs and globes, and its modest collection of books and maps. Fortunately, however, Americans are not ones to let minor slights fester, and within one month, retired U.S. President Thomas Jefferson offered his entire personal library as a replacement. Jefferson had spent 50 years accumulating books, "putting by everything which related to America, and indeed whatever was rare and valuable in every science," and his library was considered one of the finest in the country. The ecumenical nature of his collection, reflecting a voracious curiosity on all subjects, fundamentally altered the philosophy and rationale behind the collecting policies of the LoC, which then saw its mission as a repository for open scholarship on every conceivable intellectual pursuit.

In 1897, the Library of Congress was moved to one of my favorite Washington landmarks, the impressive Italian Renaissance Jefferson Building, which is today the jewel among three Library of Congress buildings clustered near the U.S. Capitol. The central Reading Room of the Jefferson Building is one of the most beautiful odes to the love of knowledge in Washington. It is simply not to be missed.

The Geography and Map Division

But, of course, of most importance is its unparalleled collection of maps and related cartographic, GIS, and geographic reference materials. The Library's original Hall of Maps and Charts has now become the Geography and Map Division, occupying an area of 90,000 square feet in the Library's James Madison Memorial Building. Annual additions to the Geography and Map Division's collections average 60,000–80,000 maps and 2,000 atlases. The many rare and valuable maps and atlases in the collection include the recently acquired 1507 Waldseemuller map, original prints chronicling Napoleon's adventures in Egypt, and the 1482 printed edition of Claudius Ptolemy's Geography. The Geography and Map Division holds, preserves, and makes available to the public the largest and most comprehensive collection of maps and atlases in the world.

AAG and the Library of Congress

To help guide you through this magnificent collection, Dr. John Hébert, director of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, will deliver a special plenary presentation at the AAG Annual Meeting on the Library's geographic collections, its dynamic plans for the future, and how to access it for research and pleasure. Hébert's plenary talk on April 15, 2010, is cosponsored by the Washington Map Society.

An AAG field trip to a rare Library of Congress open house event—exclusively for AAG Annual Meeting attendees—will take place on Saturday, April 17. During the open house, the graceful Geography and Map Reading Room will host a unique exhibit of both modern and historic maps, atlases, globes, and terrain models, dating from the 14th century to 2010, followed by a "behind the scenes" guided tour of the Library's vault of priceless cartographic treasures.

Geography Reference and Online Services

The Geography and Map Division also employs very helpful reference librarians who will respond to requests "that cannot be answered by a library in the inquirer's locality." While this is a great service, they are quick to note that they cannot undertake extensive research projects or assist in preparing bibliographies, term papers, or other academic assignments (sorry, students).

As might be expected, numerous digital maps and GIS and other geographic resources are increasingly available online as well from the Library of Congress for both researchers and the public. A good place to start is www.loc.gov/topics/maps.php. But the AAG Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., from April 14–18, 2010, will offer a unique opportunity to experience firsthand the dazzling array of cartographic wonders at the Library of Congress. I look forward to seeing you there.

Doug Richardson
drichardson@aag.org

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