Stanford’s New Map Center Lets You Get Up Close & Personal

These maps of San Francisco show how the city grew from 1853 to 2015. They're of varying sizes and scales, but when digitized, they can be "geo-referenced" against Google Earth and then easily compared.

These maps of San Francisco show how the city grew from 1853 to 2015. They're of varying sizes and scales, but when digitized, they can be "geo-referenced" against Google Earth and then easily compared. (Photo: Courtesy of The David Rumsey Map Center)

One of the largest map collections in the country is about to open at Stanford.  The David Rumsey Map Center is not just big in size, with more than 150,000 items, including rare first editions. It’s also accessible world-wide because many of the maps have been digitized; more than 67,000 items.

Retired real estate developer David Rumsey has been obsessed with maps since he was a small boy, and he’s been collecting for more than three decades.  “I like modern maps, I like old maps,” Rumsey says. “I just find them fascinating. They’re art. They’re science. They’re history. All of those things.”

Rumsey has donated his entire collection to Stanford. It includes atlases, wall maps, globes, maritime charts, and even children’s maps made for school assignments. Highlights include a 19th century Jain cosmological diagram hand-painted on cloth, a leather-bound book considered to be the first true world atlas, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (1570), and a map from the first published edition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Account of the Expedition.

A Map of Lewis and Clark's Track, Across the Western Portion of North America From the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean (1814). The map was copied by Samuel Lewis from William Clark's original drawing, and was engraved by Samuel Harrison.
A Map of Lewis and Clark’s Track, Across the Western Portion of North America From the Mississippi to the Pacific Ocean (1814). The map was copied by Samuel Lewis from William Clark’s original drawing, and was engraved by Samuel Harrison. (Photo: Courtesy of The David Rumsey Map Center)

Other map collections are represented at the center, including Glen McLaughlin’s California as an Island, which tells the story of a long-cherished misconception about California held by European map makers when the New World was still largely terra incognita to them

Rumsey says he picked Stanford over other potential libraries because he didn’t want his maps locked away in dusty archives. “In the past, these kinds of collections were more about preservation, which is good, very admirable,” Rumsey says. “But we would like to change that paradigm.”

Digital revolution makes collections more accessible 

A growing number of major map repositories have signed onto what’s known as the International Image Interoperability Framework. It’s a system that enables participating institutions to share their collections using compatible software to deliver high resolution images to anyone who asks. As a result of this development, curators everywhere can more easily put together exhibitions without having to physically bring artifacts to their museums. “It doesn’t matter where the actual image is,” says G. Salim Mohammed, the curator who heads the David Rumsey Map Center. “It could be in Europe. It could be in Africa. It could be anywhere there is Internet access.”

In addition to curators, the system stands to benefit scholars, school children, environmentalists, artists, and other groups.

“Maps in physical form are beautiful, but they’re hard to work with,” says Rumsey. “In digital form, they’re light as a feather.”

That Said, You Really Should Visit Stanford

So why go to Green Library, the physical building where the Center is located? For one thing, you’ll want to see the inaugural exhibition, A Universe of Maps in the Peterson Gallery on the library’s second floor. Massive printouts of the digitized maps from the collection are on the walls, including in the rotunda and in the stairwells. They’re even etched onto the glass doors at the entrance of the center. The sharpness of the detail is stunning.  It may take you an hour to make your way into the center itself.

Once there, two floor-to-ceiling computer screens immediately capture your attention. One is a 12 x 7′ touch screen, for those big and small who’ve learned to relate to visual images through an iPad. The other screen is 16 x 9′. “These are basically a screen savers that we commissioned from Stamen Design in San Francisco,” Rumsey jokes, just before he shows what you can do with them.

Plan de Turgota map of Paris (1739). This copy was printed from the original plates in approximately 1860.
Plan de Turgota map of Paris (1739). This copy was printed from the original plates in approximately 1860. (Photo: Courtesy of The David Rumsey Map Center)

It’s not that you can’t zoom in and out, cross fade between maps, and do side-by-side comparisons on your laptop at home. But on a giant screen, you can zoom in to see incredible detail that often goes completely unnoticed when you’re looking at a map as a whole.

Rumsey pulls up Plan de Turgot, a map of Paris from 1739. “It’s 20 sheets in a book, but we knitted them altogether into one gigantic image,” Rumsey says. On Rumsey’s big screen, you can see a huge amount of detail. “You see all the piles of wood?” Rumsey says. “That’s the heating source for Paris in 1739.” Rumsey clicks around, to show how wood is making its way from outside the city to homes inside. “The man that made this map had permission from the king to go into all the back yards,” Rumsey says. “So he has the gardens. It’s just an extraordinary cultural record. Maps are just like books. They’re filled with all kinds of stories to tell.”

David Rumsey stands in front of a map from 1733 superimposed over Google Earth. Wouldn't you like to run a search for viewing on a 16 x 9' computer screen?
David Rumsey stands in front of a map from 1733 superimposed over Google Earth. Wouldn’t you like to run a search for viewing on a 16 x 9′ computer screen? (Photo: Rachael Myrow/KQED)

The David Rumsey Map Center opens for special events Tuesday, Apr. 19. It opens to the public Tuesday, Apr. 25.  More info here.

Stanford’s New Map Center Lets You Get Up Close & Personal 21 April,2016Rachael Myrow
  • Beth Rumsey

    What an amazing gift from an amazing man! The University is so lucky to house this historic collection. Can’t wait to see it!

Author

Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED's South Bay arts reporter, covering arts and culture in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She also guest hosts for  The California Report and Forum, files stories for NPR and hosts a podcast called Love in the Digital Age.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
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