Since the 1990s, collector David Rumsey has digitized and made freely available his thousands of historical maps; his site has long been one of the best resources for cartography. While his concentration is maps from the 18th and 19th centuries, when there was an increase of available geographic, census, and other terrestrial data, the collection really has everything cartographic: celestial globes, 19th-century maps by children, an 1837 atlas for the blind, timelines, World’s Fair guides, aeronautical charts, 17th-century constellations, and more than 2,000 pictorial maps alone. In April, Stanford University opened the David Rumsey Map Center in its Green Library. The center is the first publicly accessible location for the over 150,000 maps, which Rumsey announced he was donating back in 2009.
“The center is a place where the physical and the digital come together, and a scholar can take advantage of both modes,” G. Salim Mohammed, head and curator of the David Rumsey Map Center, told Hyperallergic. Significantly, Rumsey didn’t just donate the maps themselves, but also their digital versions. Before most libraries and museums were digitizing their collections, Rumsey was working on better ways to offer high-resolution images online, including the development of Luna Imaging, now a widely used display tool. His collection is joined at the center by Glen McLaughin’s Maps of California as an Island, the Branner Earth Sciences Library and Map Collections, and more than 10,000 maps from Stanford Libraries’ special collections, making it a cartography hub for the campus.
At the center, students, faculty, and anyone doing scholarly research can view a physical map or atlas, while simultaneously using one of two large screens to zoom in on its details. Georeferencing data situates the maps spatially, so that multiple maps can be laid over each other in the digital interface. Additionally, Oculus Rift VR and iPad Pros are on hand for in-depth exploration.
The center is also designed to accommodate some of its more colossal objects, like a 10-by-5.5-foot William Smith Map and a 11-by-17-foot Ōmi Kuni-ezu Japanese Tax map. “The center can, with its combination of tables that can be assembled together, actually put these maps on view,” Mohammed explained.
The first exhibition in the space, A Universe of Maps, showcases highlights from the center’s collections, such as an 1814 map from the first edition of Lewis and Clark’s Account of the Expedition, a 1710 Buddhist map of the world, and Abraham Ortelius’s 1570 Theatrum orbis terrarum, a work often cited as the first modern atlas. Meanwhile, Stanford has launched two initial digital map exhibitions, one focused on instances when California was erroneously illustrated as an island, another on historical maps of Africa. Online collection spotlights thus far include “Leo Blegicus,” or Blegian Lion, maps, which illustrate the Netherlands and Belgium as a lion; small and miniature atlases; and advertisements for 20th-century air travel by artists like Lucien Boucher, who created an especially gorgeous Air France map of the world with illuminated zodiac symbols.
The possibilities for the center’s displays, both physical and digital, feel just about endless.
“This experience of being able to view and interact with the maps in different ways gives you a new perspective on the material,” Mohammed said. “In some ways, we don’t know what might come of it, and in that sense, we act as a geo-garage, a laboratory for all things cartographic. At Stanford we are always interested in thinking out of the box. You never know for certain where it will lead.”
The David Rumsey Map Center is located in the Green Library at Stanford University (557 Escondido Mall, Stanford, California).