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Maps as Books

Summer/Fall 2004

     Maps as books? Am I suggesting that maps can be compared to books, be treated like books, and hold the status of books? Yes--more or less. Let me count the ways.

     Maps and books are cousins in substance and in spirit. Rectilinear sheets of paper, made to be handled, opened flat for use, put away and stored, their essence is in the ink printed on their surface in a language intelligible to their audience.

     Created by, and credited to, an authorial figure, they are physically produced by journeyman experts using complex technologies. As commercial products manufactured in numbers from dozens to thousands, they are sold in specialized venues and commonly stored in specialized collections organized for efficient retrieval.

     They are subject to criticism, revision, re-publication, copying, obsolescence, and deterioration. If they become rare, they may be pursued avidly for private collections, display, or re-sale, generating traditions of connoisseurship and organizations of enthusiasts like the Zamorano Club and the California Map Society.

     Bibliophiles and cartophiles have long relied on card files; now books and maps are both on a fast track to digitalization and a virtual existence in cyberspace. Their shared material heritage is de-materializing before our eyes.

     The most important reason for thinking of maps as books is of course that they too can carry meaning from one mind to many, from one time to another, from one place to anywhere, revealing and binding their makers to their users. Maps, like books, are cultural products that deserve serious interdisciplinary study.

     My attempt to raise our consciousness of maps by emphasizing their kinship with books admittedly rests on generalizations and takes no account of innumerable differences and special cases. The maps I have in mind, like the books, are those that have an historical character and a status definable as library-worthy. The Roy V. Boswell Collection for the History of Cartography in the Pollak Library exemplifies the ideal just as well as do the vast collections at the British Library, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, or the University of Texas at Austin.

     The Boswell Collection was created in 1971 by Ernest W. Toy, Cal State Fullerton’s founding librarian, and Roy V. Boswell, a rare book and map dealer. They planned to provide the new university with a first-rate resource for scholarship and education in the rapidly developing interdisciplinary field of the history of cartography. The collection would consist of original early maps (made before the 20th century) representing important cartographers and themes in map-making, accompanied by supporting scholarly and reference works needed for their study. By 1985 the Collection had reached its projected size of just over 1,500 maps and 2,000 volumes. Upon Roy Boswell’s retirement as its curator in 1987, the Collection was named for him. It has acquired a national reputation, has served twice as a venue for the California Map Society’s semi-annual meetings, and has been the subject of three illustrated lectures for that organization.

     The importance of the Collection may not be self-evident even in a university community--possibly even because the university promotes so very many other competing intellectual and practical activities. Those who have been involved in building, exhibiting, and studying the Boswell Collection have understandably been concerned to explain it. Most of us take it for granted that maps are intended to present as accurately as possible certain kinds of useful facts about our planet’s surface. That is the European, though not the Asiatic, tradition of cartography. Inevitably, in portraying the physical world, maps also disclose the mental world of the cartographer. When his understanding of reality, or his purposes, are different from our own, his maps will seem strange to us and require explanation and interpretation. That is the task of historians of cartography, just as historians and critics of literature, philosophy, music, art, religion, or science seek to understand the cultural significance of each of these forms of thought.

     Maps embody, synoptically, many components of the past: world views, geographic understanding, scientific knowledge, anthropological beliefs, artistic style, printing methods, publishing conventions, and commercial standards. Each map encapsulates to some degree a history of past maps leading up to itself, and each has its own history, from its publication to the present time. Each incorporates cumulative truths and errors as well as certain novelties. Each tells us not only what was known at a given time but also about that time’s ignorance, misunderstandings, fears, hopes, and fantasies. Each, by its very existence tends to validate the ideas and images it presents, and carries a kind of authority—justifiable or not—because of its precision of line and technical nomenclature. Each is the work of an assertive expert working within a tradition—or modifying a tradition—who by reason of his reputation influences the ideas of an age.

     Maps, like the literature contemporary with them, formulate explicit messages but also incorporate implicit aspects of their culture. Just as established methods of historical and literary criticism are needed to interpret books of the past, so early maps require analysis from the more recent discipline of the history of cartography if they are to reveal their significance. Maps hold a place in the history of civilization analogous to other forms of humanistic culture, and their study is an emerging multi-disciplinary endeavor that can make important and hitherto unrealized contributions to other fields of research.

     Let’s return, at long last, to my questions at the beginning. Maps can indeed be compared fruitfully to books in essential material respects. Maps are in fact treated like books as items of commerce, collecting, and connoisseurship. And, most important, maps hold the status of books as distinctive embodiments of cultural history and therefore worthy subjects of intensive, imaginative, scholarship. This is the sum of my argument for considering “maps as books.”

     The Boswell Collection’s maps are themselves a part of history and will have to take their chances in the flux of time. But efforts have been made to promote their longevity. The fine paper they are printed on will probably remain chemically stable—as it has through one to five centuries—for hundreds more years. Each map is in an acid-free environment, protected by fixed temperature, limited light, and minimal handling. Never in their history have they been better treated. The digital photography and cataloging we are planning will help even more to assure that they survive intact into the remote future.

Albert R. Vogeler