Of Maps, Libraries, and Lectures: The Nebenzahl Lectures and the Study of Map History
This is the script of my lecture for the 19th Nebenzahl Lecture series, as presented. Some information from the slides are added, but most has not been transferred; I’ve stripped the call-outs to slide changes. An expanded essay, with full notes, will be published in the final volume for the lecture series.
The interrelationship between collecting and studying early maps is readily apparent in the scholarly act that inaugurated the modern study of map history. This act took place in a library, specifically that in Paris of the polymath, Baron Charles-Athanase Walckenaer. Early in 1832, Walckenaer showed a map he had just acquired to an eminent visitor, Alexander von Humboldt. The map, drawn in a maritime style, held Humboldt’s interest because of its depiction of the New World. Using the “riches” of the baron’s “extensive library,” Humboldt was able to determine that this newfound map had been made in 1500 by Columbus’s pilot, Juan de la Cosa, and Humboldt celebrated it for the immediate, tangible link it gave him to that momentous period when, apparently, modern rationalism was born and triumphed over ancient limits and medieval ignorance.
Thereafter, other scholars increasingly collected early maps and studied them as surrogates for the history of western civilization, in order to justify the supposed intellectual superiority of Westerners and to validate the West’s rise to global domination. But just as such arguments have been exposed in recent decades as Eurocentric self-justifications for modern imperialism, so too has map history been profoundly transformed as a field. Today, scholars from across the humanities and social sciences pursue a map history that is empirically rich and conceptually sophisticated. We now study a far wider array of images — such as Heinrich Bünting’s 1581 metaphorical world map — and we do so in more different ways than Walckenaer and Humboldt could ever have imagined.
The inaugural moment for the present-day field of study also took place in a library: this one. Here, in the Fellows’ Lounge directly above us, exactly fifty years ago tonight, R. A. Skelton began the first series of the Kenneth J. Nebenzahl, Jr., Lectures in the History of Cartography. Skelton’s lectures gave the first impetus to overcome the field’s intellectual inertia. Thereafter the Nebenzahl Lectures have been a constant force in the development of new approaches to the study of early maps. My task today is to tell the story of the lectures and to assess their significance. I begin with the state of the field in the 1960s and the intertwined origins of the lectures themselves with the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography. I continue by exploring how the lectures, starting with Skelton’s own, have had a substantial intellectual impact. And, finally, I am compelled to echo Skelton’s last lecture and reflect on the current state of field: the Nebenzahl Lectures and the Smith Center are together in a position to reenergize the field and to lead it into novel and untried pastures.
Map History in the 1960s
Before I turn to the state of the field in the 1960s, I need to clarify some terminology. My preferred catchall term for the scholarly activity of studying early maps and mapping, for whatever purpose and in whatever way, is “map history.” By contrast, “the history of cartography” has always been used prescriptively to define and delimit the field of study for ideological reasons. In other words, there is much more to map history than the history of cartography. In this lecture, I generally use “the history of cartography” to mean specifically the field as Skelton conceptualized it in his 1966 lectures. Skelton would develop that conception in reaction to the three distinct communities of map historian active in the 1960s, each of which pursued particular studies of early maps in support of their larger disciplinary goals.
The first community, which originated in the Renaissance, comprised those scholars who have been interested in reading early maps for their substance, for the information they provide about the past. In the nineteenth and twentieth century, substantive map historians progressively organized themselves within history and geography. Their particular interest lay in the content of detailed, large-scale plans — such as those of the Austrian military — that can be used to reconstruct past landscapes, settlement patterns, and agricultural systems.
Second, starting in the later seventeenth century, professional surveyors and map makers have pursued an internal history of professional mapping practices and institutions. Each particular group has written its own historical narrative in order to place itself at the forefront of technical progress. In the twentieth century, academic cartography was predicated largely on an historical sensibility that sought to explain the look and nature of maps — i.e., map form — through histories of the underlying technical practices. Academic cartographers were especially interested in the development of thematic mapping and of relief depiction. In 1921, for example, Max Eckert reproduced a papyrus map from ancient Egypt to demonstrate the ancient origins of certain conventions of relief depiction.
Third were Walckenaer and Humboldt’s intellectual descendants, the various historians, map librarians, and antiquarian dealers and collectors who in the nineteenth and twentieth century have traced the growth of geographical knowledge in small-scale geographical and marine maps so as to tell the history of Western exploration and discovery as a surrogate for Western science and civilization. This community was much larger and more self-organized than the other two, and its members called themselves “historians of cartography.” Beginning with Skelton, map historians have looked to this specific community as the sole precursor to the present-day field, so I refer to them as “traditional” map historians.
All three communities adhered to the same general understanding of cartography as a singular and essentially factual endeavor in which the world is progressively observed and measured so that it might be scientifically reproduced on paper. Yet the specific purpose of each community in studying early maps meant that each concentrated on certain kinds of maps from specific eras. As such, there was little interest or even opportunity for the different communities to interact.
This mutual isolation began to change after World War Two. This graph of the number of doctoral degrees awarded annually over the course of the twentieth century gives one measure of academia’s post-war explosion. A new emphasis on doctorates infused academia with new concerns for rigorous methodologies and conceptual structures. For example, in 1964, the British historical geographer Brian Harley published a guide to the proper substantive analysis of nineteenth-century Ordnance Survey maps. Again, R. A. Skelton, in a 1962 lecture published in 1965, argued the case for rigor in the visual analysis of early maps by traditional map historians.
In this situation, a number of map scholars — mostly the keen, younger ones eager to differentiate themselves from their elders — started to cross between the communities to talk to others interested in early maps. Their interactions were helped by the fact that all map historians adhered to the same basic premise that maps are factual and innately scientific documents. The barriers between the three communities steadily dissolved. And as map scholars increasingly interacted, they began to argue over the best way to study map history: was it to understand map form, as internal map historians held, or to elucidate map content, as traditional and substantive map historians insisted?
The Nebenzahl Lectures at the Newberry Library
In this period of academic flux, it was easy for new ideas to develop and take hold. This was certainly the case for the establishment at the Newberry Library of the Nebenzahl Lectures and then the Smith Center.
Ken Nebenzahl had begun using the Newberry Library’s collections in the early 1950s, to indulge his personal fascination with rare books and maps. Right from the start, he has said, the library was “a magical place to me.” Guided by the Newberry’s curators, Ken learned enough to be able to set up shop, with Jossy, as a dealer in rare books and maps. They received their formal incorporation papers on 1 November 1957; Jossy ran the shop and the accounts while Ken scoured Europe for stock. The antiquarian trade was booming. Post-war economic stresses led many established European collections to be sold off, many in their entirety, to U.S. buyers. These included both long-established collectors and institutions, as well as newly expanding state universities seeking to build up their special collections. It was easy for any dealer to be successful; all one had to do, Ken has said, was to set one’s alarm clock.
The Newberry and its staff contributed significantly to the success of the new business. Library president Stanley Pargellis recommended Ken to potential clients; the library’s curators bought extensively. James Wells, curator of the Wing Collection, became a particular friend. One day in 1963, at lunch, Ken wondered how he and Jossy might give something back to the library. Wells immediately replied that they should start a lecture series in map history.
The idea appealed greatly to the library’s new President, Bill Towner, but not because he was himself interested in maps and mapping. Towner was trying to build programs by which the library might support scholarship and public interest in the humanities. Since its founding in 1887, the Newberry had operated essentially as a grand gentleman’s club. Pargellis had begun to counter the library’s isolation with a small fellowship program and a number of topical conferences. When he took over from Pargellis, Towner proposed a “Midwest Center for Advanced Study in the Humanities” to attract scholars to the Newberry’s “great resources in the literature, history, music, and philosophy of Western Civilization.” Even without maps and mapping — omitted from Towner’s list because the traditional understanding of the humanities simply precluded the science of cartography — the putative research center was too broadly framed for Towner to secure the necessary financial support.
It was at just this moment that Ken and Jossy Nebenzahl pitched the proposal for a lecture series in map history. Towner was intrigued. The Nebenzahls’ success implied that there was widespread interest in early maps among Chicagoland’s great and good, while Ken’s use of the library suggested that its map collections were indeed significant and substantial. Maybe, Towner thought, he could begin to foster humanities research at the Newberry through the particular vehicle of map history.
In December 1963, Ken and Jossy made the first installment to fund a lecture series, to be named after their son, Kenneth Jr. The gift was publicized in June 1964, when the visiting Dutch cartographer and historian Cornelis Koeman gave a public lecture on the life and career of Abraham Ortelius. Between the public interest and Koeman’s positive reaction to the quality of the Newberry’s holdings, Towner was reassured that there was indeed great potential for a research center in map history. Not that Towner then had a clue about the intellectual character of the work such a center would undertake, but he did know what was needed institutionally.
A blow-by-blow account of Towner’s efforts to fund a map center is unnecessary. Most of the blows were to his ego, so the story will be dispiritingly familiar to anyone with experience in academic fund-raising and tedious to everyone else. Suffice to say that the price tag for the whole program — a full-time curator of maps; a director of the map center; the acquisition of new collections; fellowships for students and scholars; special projects; and, of course, the Nebenzahl Lectures — was huge, amounting to more than $1.5 million over ten years, equivalent today to as much as $25,000,000. This proved far too rich for funders, and Towner began to think that the idea of a research center was no more than an “agreeable pipe-dream.”
Discouraged but not deterred, Towner instead focused individually on each element of a putative research center. He raised the funds to acquire the Novacco Collection of sixteenth-century Italian maps and the Sack Collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century atlases. He realigned the library’s overall budget to permit the hiring, in 1969, of David Woodward as the first map curator. And he secured grants for specific projects, notably the Atlas of Early American History.
The Nebenzahl Lectures were the most publically visible of the Newberry’s map-related programs and they formed the cornerstone of all of Towner’s efforts to establish a research center. Towner used the first two lecture series to learn more about the field, to assess the library’s holdings, and to proselytize for a research center. Both lecturers had a month residency — first R. A. Skelton in October and November 1966, then William Cumming in April 1970 — and both delivered four lectures. While Cumming simply reviewed the library’s holdings pertaining to colonial North America and gave his lectures, Towner got his money’s worth from Skelton. He persuaded Skelton first, to use his lectures to address the field’s “needs and opportunities”; then to write two reports, one on the state of the library’s cartographic collections, the other on the potential for a research center; and finally to lead two seminars, one on the hot topic of the Vinland Map, the other on the feasibility of a research center. The participants in the second seminar included many prominent map scholars, and all were greatly enthused by the prospect of a center.
Towner’s dogged quest eventually bore fruit when, in March 1971, Dutch Smith, president of the library’s trustees and a significant map collector in his own right, declared his intent to endow a cartographic research center with $600,000, or about $8.6 million today. The center opened for business on April 1st, 1971, under a temporary name and under Woodward’s direction. Underscoring the intertwined histories of the center and the lecture series, the formal dedication of the Hermon Dunlap Smith Center for the History of Cartography on November 1st, 1972, with a keynote lecture by the great historian of discoveries, Samuel Eliot Morison, also marked the opening of the third series of Nebenzahl Lectures, on “Five Centuries of Map Printing.”
The immediate product of the Nebenzahl Lectures was thus the Smith Center. Trained as he was in a humanities that excluded cartography, Bill Towner would never have thought to establish a research center in map history had Ken and Jossy not followed through on that initial, lunch-time suggestion by James Wells. The new institutional and research focus on maps and mapping became a strategic move on Towner’s part to build the library’s public and intellectual profile as a necessary step in attracting still further funding for other research centers. This strategy was effective; an indirect product of the lectures has therefore been the establishment in subsequent years of the Newberry Library’s three other research centers.
Skelton on the “History of Cartography”
Towner’s efforts to create a research center in the humanities that focused on early maps and mapping would not have come to fruition had R. A. Skelton not persuaded him, Dutch Smith, and others that a humanities-centered approach to map history was indeed both feasible and desirable. Although brief, Skelton’s arguments constituted a major change in the study of maps and mapping, change that would be continued by the Smith Center’s directors in later Nebenzahl Lectures.
Skelton was a remarkable scholar. His personal interests very much lay in the traditional topics of exploration and discovery. But as superintendent of the map room in the British Museum — now the British Library — at a time of increasingly interaction, he inevitably contributed to all three flavors of map history. Cornelis Koeman would later remember him as “one of the very few scholars in the field” who had “mastered all the special branches of this subject,” whether the traditional (history of discoveries, early charts, and cartobibliography), the internal (cartographic techniques, the map trade), or the substantive (topographical mapping).
Skelton’s lectures revealed some of this breadth. He delivered his four lectures in two pairs, all under the general title of “The Study and Collecting of Early Maps: A Historical Survey.” The first lecture comprised a rapid history of mapmaking from Antiquity to the present. He avoided a simple list of “great maps I have known” by using the narratives developed by internal map historians to present the technological and intellectual “watersheds” through which this endeavor had passed. In his other lectures, on the intertwined histories of map collecting and the study of early maps, Skelton referred to the work of early modern substantive map historians. But for the modern era, after 1800, he focused almost exclusively on the work of traditional map historians, especially as filtered through the work of map librarians. For example, much of his final lecture on the current state of the field comprised a review of the bibliographies, cartobibliographies, and especially the facsimile atlases by which map historians made early maps available to other scholars.
Despite this bias, Skelton met Towner’s request by offering glimpses, at the start and end of his second pair of lectures, of what a humanities-centered field might look like. He drew heavily on a recent essay by Arthur Robinson, dean of U.S. academic cartographers, on the value of cartography within a liberal arts education. Robinson had argued that cartography’s dual status, as both art and science, made it innately interdisciplinary, and that maps are integral to modern history and society. Skelton concluded with a key quote from this essay: “There are few results of man’s activities that so closely parallel man’s interests and intellectual capabilities as the map.”
In other words — and this is Skelton’s major insight — maps are rewarding of study in their own right. They are as revelatory of the human condition as any work of art or literature, and should be studied as such, not just to provide data for other disciplines. Just as Robinson had defined “cartography” as a singular endeavor relevant to both sciences and the humanities, so now Skelton defined “the history of cartography” as the singular field of study that “trace[s] the development … of the graphic forms in which” humans have “expressed … knowledge and ideas about the earth.”
Skelton further argued that the existing ways of studying early maps — what I have been calling the traditional, substantive, and internal approaches — each dealt only with a small part of map history and as such they could not, even when taken together, encompass this subject entirely. There was so much more to the entirety of this “history of cartography,” although Skelton could only briefly allude to what that extra might be. Specifically, he observed that “the limitations to which the mind, eye, and hand of the contemporary mapmaker were subject” were “partly conditioned by social and economic factors. So the study of content and that of form mutually control and support one another.” Let me remind everyone of the pronounced divide that then existed between the traditional and substantive map historians who studied map content and the internal map historians who studied map form. Skelton now suggested that form and content both depended on “social and economic factors.” I am reminded of a journalist’s solution to the great, continuing debate between modern architects: “form follows function, function follows form, and both follow money.” Skelton thus implied that the proper focus of this new history of cartography is not map form, nor is it map content, nor is it some facile formula that “it’s both!” No. The proper focus is upon the social factors that underpin form and content together.
It would take two decades for the implications of this vision to be properly appreciated even by the few scholars who were directly inspired by Skelton’s vision of a new map history. Two scholars — the young internal map historian David Woodward, who attended Skelton’s lectures and who later joined the Newberry Library as its first map expert, and the substantive map historian Brian Harley, who was as frustrated as Woodward with the field’s lack of intellectual rigor — spent the best part of twenty years squabbling over the priority of form and content. At the same time, Skelton’s vision of a single subject matter led the two scholars to embark on a multivolume series whose title, with hindsight, can be seen as paying homage to Skelton’s vision: The History of Cartography. In the process, Harley and Woodward turned increasingly to cartography’s social and cultural underpinnings, leading them to add more and ever larger volumes and, eventually, rendering moot their form-versus-content debate.
Intellectual Impact of the Nebenzahl Lectures
Skelton successfully conceived of a place for map history that was suitably aligned with the humanities. The work of the Smith Center’s directors has since been to flesh out Skelton’s vision and to harmonize it with the Newberry Library’s general mission to advance the humanities. The directors have consistently looked past geography and history to engage with the histories of art, science, printing, and literature. The primary vehicle for this interdisciplinary engagement has been the Nebenzahl Lectures. The effect, as it has developed over several decades, has been to transform a restricted and conservative subject into a vibrant and interdisciplinary field of study.
The lectures, by themselves, would have had little power to change the field, had the University of Chicago Press not also published expanded versions of them. The Press’s now extensive list in map history began with, and has grown through, the volumes prepared from each lecture series. The manner in which the lectures opened up a new space for publishing map history is itself testament to their influence.
Of course, the lectures and their resultant volumes were not the sole cause of disciplinary change. Far from it. But they have been the one constant force giving new shape to the field. The conveners of each lecture series — first Towner and then each of the Smith Center’s directors: David Woodward, David Buisseret, and Jim Akerman — might not have fully understood what they were doing, and at times they made significant missteps, but the result is clear: they led the decades-long reconfiguration of map history.
The conveners have followed two simple strategies. Right from the start, they urged lecturers to undertake general syntheses so as to overcome the field’s marked preference for narrow analysis. The press’s peer-review process has further encouraged synthesis. To be honest, however, not all lecturers have been able to meet the challenge, so that the final volumes have been delayed or even cancelled.
Then, starting with the third series, the conveners have used multiple lecturers to address different aspects of an important yet little studied theme. Woodward thus broke the history of map printing into discrete lectures, one synthesizing each fundamental technique — woodcut, copperplate, lithography, and so on — with an introductory account of the differential usage of the techniques over time. Not all themes leant themselves to a logical design. For the fifth series, Woodward sought to use the long history of the European exploration and mapping of the Great Lakes, from 1600 to the present, to explore why and how maps were made, and with what geometric accuracy. It proved very difficult to find scholars who could address each chronological-slash-thematic lecture, so Woodward spent several months trying to realign potential lecturers with ever-shifting topics. Henceforth, each series has been developed in a more flexible manner: select a theme, solicit reflective, synthetic essays from appropriate scholars, and then, if necessary, readjust the overall theme. For the sixth series in 1980, Woodward began with the theme, “Cartography and the Fine Arts,” but ended up with a broader array of lectures grouped under the more general title of just “Art and Cartography.”
Two of the early series did not cohere into published volumes because they construed their subject matter too broadly. In seeking comprehensive coverage of mapmaking processes, both effectively ran into the limits of Skelton’s vision of a singular “history of cartography.” It is not that there is one endeavor of map making that varies in response to different social and cultural circumstances; rather, there are several different mapping endeavors and each should be studied by itself. In response to the failure of the 1983 series, Buisseret asked the lecturers to focus on a particular social context, the development of administrative mapping, in the early modern era. His subsequent series focused on the specific modes of property and urban mapping. Akerman’s series have primarily addressed specific social contexts or eras, such as mapping and transportation, commerce, and empire.
These strategies have materially influenced how scholars have approached early maps. Time and again, the Nebenzahl Lectures have led by example. The selection of understudied themes has opened up the field to new questions and interpretations, from intersections between art and mapping to the function of mapping in constructing national identities in post-colonial states.
We can, moreover, trace the effects of the lectures on individual scholars. For example, Brian Harley gave two lectures in 1974 in which he touched on the novel subject of how different people involved in the American Revolution had used maps; this prompted Woodward to solicit a third chapter specifically on map use for the published volume. To fill in the gaps between the scattered instances of map use recorded in the archives, Harley employed theories about the nature of maps and cartography, which began his conceptual turn towards the issues of ideology and power for which he is now remembered.
Alternatively, the lectures have enticed outside scholars to enter the field. Richard Kagan, an historian of education and the law in early modern Spain, had gotten involved, via a chapter for an exhibition catalog on El Greco’s legal troubles, with early views of Iberian cities. That work in turn led Buisseret to invite him to lecture on urban mapping in early modern Spain for the tenth series. Pulled into the field, Kagan has since produced several significant works on maps and views in the Hispanic world.
Yet, while the map bug is virulent, it is not irresistible. Many of the scholars who have come to the Nebenzahl lectures “from away” as tourists have not stayed as residents. Their external perspectives have nonetheless transformed map studies. Svetlana Alpers dealt with maps only in her 1980 lecture on the “mapping impulse” in Dutch landscape art, but as the core of her 1983 book, The Art of Describing, her map work has directed many art historians to investigate connections between landscape art and topographical and chorographical mapping.
Finally, and rather paradoxically, the Nebenzahl Lectures have undermined the modern sense of the unity of cartography. Skelton argued in 1966, and others soon agreed, that a humanities-centered approach requires us to study all aspects of cartography, not just those facets of interest to substantive, internal, and traditional map historians. However, as the failures of the 1977 and 1983 lecture series suggest, “cartography” is much larger and more complex than the singular process postulated by modern culture. The success of those lecture series that concentrated on particular kinds of mapping, each with their own social functions, cultural characteristics, and technical practices, has further demonstrated that what we think of as cartography is actually an idealization. From a humanities perspective, cartography fragments into multiple endeavors, or modes, or discourses — call them what you will. In short, to paraphrase Steven Shapin’s comment about the scientific revolution, “there is no such thing as cartography, and this has been a lecture series about it!”
Map History: Present and Future, Intellectual
In conjunction with general intellectual trends over the last fifty years, the Nebenzahl Lectures have profoundly reconfigured the field by pushing map scholars to adopt new ideas and interests. The new map history is incredibly varied and ranges from detailed empirical studies to complex applications of postmodern philosophy. Nonetheless, almost all of the new work has had just a couple of concerns, and as such can be grouped into a new approach, which we might call “sociocultural” map history. Sociocultural map historians hail from across the humanities and social sciences. All explore the highly varied discursive functions and cultural signification of maps as well as the social conditions of mapping, for example, mapping by women, in education or, as on the screen, both together.
It took a long time for this new approach to develop. In the Sixties, an anxious time, there was anxiety about the nature of the field; in the Seventies, the anxiety resolved into some hints at new concepts about the nature of maps and their history; in the Eighties, the hints generated a swarm of provocative statements from map historians, geographers, art historians, and literary scholars; in the Nineties, the swarm of provocation gave way to detailed monographs that demonstrated the value of a sociocultural approach; in the Naughties, the sociocultural approach was consolidated as the dominant form of map history. But sociocultural studies have yet to displace the older approaches completely: traditional map history persists, and digital technologies have given a new lease on life to substantive map history. However, internal map history has all but disappeared, as academic cartographers have turned almost completely away from historical themes to embrace digital technologies and informational graphics.
As the field has caught up with the Nebenzahl Lectures, each new series has inevitably seemed less innovative than its predecessors had been and so less effective in pulling the field along. A key factor in these diminishing intellectual returns has been that sociocultural approaches have only enhanced map historians’ preference for detailed analysis. After all, a work such as the Reverend Ezra Stiles’ map of Catholic Quebec threatening to squash the Protestant colonies just cries out to be interpreted within the particular political and cultural contexts that produced it. This tendency is apparent in the proliferation over the last ten years of books that present images of beautiful maps each accompanied by short analyses; these books invite their readers to construct their own overall synthesis of the history of maps and mapping from barely digested analytical nuggets.
To be clear, this is not a “bad” situation. Sociocultural map historians in general, and recent Nebenzahl lecturers in particular, have generated an incredible array of insightful studies. And there are undoubtedly many further themes that future lectures might pursue from a sociocultural perspective that would continue to advance our understanding of maps and mapping. Maps in the cinema, for example. It is, however, a limiting situation, so that as each lecture series since 1983 has necessarily adopted a highly focused theme, in order to ensure coherent treatment, lecturers have tended to provide analyses of individual case studies related to each novel theme. These later series have been new and wonderful, and they set great examples for the rest of the field, but they have not necessarily been trail blazing. In short, interpretation has tended to displace synthesis. The field is thus in need, once more, of stimulus.
A key issue with analytical studies is that they are overwhelmingly synchronic, being concerned with conditions at a certain time. An unfortunate result is that, when they do need to refer to the bigger sweep of map history, map historians inevitably resort to the outmoded progressive narratives created by traditional and internal map historians. Even sociocultural map historians perpetuate, for example, the naïve presumption that “cartography became a science” in the eighteenth century, a transformation that has been routinely symbolized since 1900 by the “corrected map of France” by Jean Picard and Philippe de la Hire.
It therefore seems to me that it would be particularly fruitful to cultivate a diachronic approach, which is to say the study of mapping over the long term. This in turn requires the identification and tracing over time of the particular processes by which maps have been produced, circulated, and consumed. Some attention has been paid to the processes of production, generally in terms of the technologies and techniques of surveying, and also of map printing. But we need to study the processes of map consumption, whether playful or rhetorical, functional or instrumental. And, as historians of the book have so successfully demonstrated, we must also consider the circulation processes that have bound producers and consumers together. Implicit in tracing all such processes is the recognition that they and their interconnections are not static and fixed, but dynamic and evolving. They change over time and across social or cultural contexts.
From this approach, a future series of the Nebenzahl Lectures devoted to the particular mode of marine mapping might solicit synthetic treatments of the production, circulation, and consumption of sea charts, each in a particular era or context, from the medieval Mediterranean, through the early modern plane chart, to the development of modern hydrography. Each lecturer would be asked to identify and explore the particular contours of the various groups of people who have commissioned and used various kinds of sea charts within the general project of knowing and representing the seas.
Such a diachronic and processual approach necessarily “decenters” the map within map history. All other strains of map history are grounded on the presumption that graphic maps are highly efficient and autonomous devices for delineating spatial relations. But, from a processual point of view, no map can be so privileged. Modern transportation, for example, depends on the installation of artificial landmarks, such as buoys on sandbanks, to which navigators refer more frequently than they consult their maps and charts. A synthetic history of modern marine charting would therefore have to place charts within a complex technological system and delineate those circumstances in which charts have been important, and those when they have not. By identifying the circuits within which particular kinds of maps have been distributed, we unavoidably consider the other inscriptions — numeric, verbal, graphic, tectonic — that were used alongside and in conjunction with those maps. By thinking about how people within these circuits consumed these various texts, we can also make room in our studies for orality, performance, and ritual. More precisely, we can start to tell the genealogies of particular map elements, something that is sorely lacking in map history. We might, for instance, explore the development of the compass rose, not as a feature that changes only in its aesthetic form, but as a functional element deployed to different ends within different, but intersecting, modes of mapping.
To my mind, a processual approach that decenters the map actively re-embeds map history within the humanities, to return to Bill Towner’s original idea for a research center at the Newberry Library. The study of maps as human documents, as being part and parcel of human culture, has significantly advanced map history within the humanities. But as we refine our understanding of mapping processes and of how they have varied, we can more appropriately integrate maps with other kinds of texts to understand their respective historical functions. We can finally attain for maps what the book historian David Hall called “a social history of culture.”
Map History: Present and Future, Institutional
The field of map history has exceeded the aspirational vision desired by Bill Towner and glimpsed by R. A. Skelton. Skelton’s insight that the study of early maps properly “transcends the bounds of disciplines” has been borne out by the sheer variety of scholars who now study early maps, and by the sheer variety of maps that are studied. But we must also remember the warning that Skelton issued in 1966 about the institutional health of such a field. Having noticed that the post-war growth of academia had permitted the development of some new disciplines, such as the history of science, complete with doctoral degree programs, but that map history had missed out, Skelton decried how interdisciplinarity all too easily becomes “extradisciplinarity.” Map history was disadvantaged: “What is everybody’s business,” he observed, “is nobody’s business.” In the absence of degree programs, Skelton argued that the necessary institutional structures for sustaining and growing the field would have to come from the libraries. Indeed, most of the desiderata he identified for the field comprised improved and expanded library activities. While I disagree with his choice of desiderata, I find myself making a similar argument for the continuing role of libraries.
We might have lost the professorship at Utrecht enjoyed by Koeman and Schilder, but we have gained new endowed professorships at the University of Texas at Arlington, the University of Southern Maine, and now also the University of Amsterdam. However, the field’s growth is still insufficient to create degree or certificate programs in map history, let alone separate and autonomous university departments. The hard academic work of editing journals and running conferences is accomplished largely through volunteer or poorly paid labor. The problem is that if volunteers are few and not regularly replenished, they fall away and the work grinds to a halt. Volunteer structures are simply not workable in the long term.
In this state of affairs, map libraries are the only viable institutions for moving the discipline forward, especially those with centers for map history. The Smith Center here at the Newberry was the first of these, followed by Explokart, which Günter Schilder founded at the University of Utrecht in 1981 and which in 2013 relocated to Amsterdam. A handful of other centers have since been created in the U.S., notably at my own institution at Southern Maine, as shown here. Each of these centers has its own agenda. Explokart promotes cartobibliographic research centered on Dutch mapping. By contrast, the U.S. institutions have generally promoted public awareness of map history through physical and virtual exhibitions. Those with associated faculty and other dedicated, non-librarian staff also run conferences and seminars.
But the increasing number of map centers should not fool us into thinking that the institutions are stable. Their endowments are subject to the vagaries of stock markets and their income can be raided by the parent institutions. And whatever non-endowment income they have is uncertain, because special collections often appear to be expensive luxuries, distant from the core mission of their parent institutions, and as such are notoriously susceptible to budget cutting.
But what about the Internet?, I hear you ask. It has been revolutionary in so many ways, why can’t its power be harnessed for the benefit of map history? Since the mid-1990s, online systems have sustained and promoted communication and collaboration between map historians, although the rapidity of change in online environments has led to neither consistency nor coherence. There is great potential to develop new sites of scholarly dialogue through the creation of open-access journals and resources, such as the journals published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS). Most important, the Internet offers a mechanism for more dynamic, accessible, and collaborative scholarship than print has ever permitted.
The Internet is, however, bedeviled by the same issues of volunteerism, longevity, and resources as the map centers. Much online intellectual work in map history has been pursued by individuals out of the goodness of their hearts, using simple, open-access or cheap applications and hosting; such work lacks institutional longevity. Sophisticated sites require complex applications and technology, and they require much time and effort not only by the map historians but also by programmers and technicians, librarians and epistemologists, copyeditors and marketers. Some of these considerable costs can be met from start-up grants, but ongoing infrastructural costs must either be passed onto users, through advertising or subscription fees, or be met by host institutions.
Despite all these problems, only the library-based map centers can provide the institutional edifice for map history. Libraries have the institutional structures and technical systems to permit longevity and continuity of content for the field. They have budgets and staff who fundraise. Thanks to the Internet, academic libraries are eroding the entrenched twentieth-century division between the sites in which knowledge is created, communicated, and preserved. Map librarians and curators must be part of this fundamental reconfiguration. For the field’s long-term vitality, the map centers need also to become sites of knowledge creation and communication, and not just preservation, to host journals and conferences and more fellowships, and to engage in innovative projects, all with the goal of advancing the field. They must continue to provide the necessary scholarly and institutional infrastructures for map history to continue to develop.
Just as in 1966, when R. A. Skelton assessed the “history of cartography,” the field of map history is in 2016 once more in need of redesign. We need to rethink its intellectual direction and its institutional structures. In 1966, Towner and Skelton were at square one, in terms of establishing a humanities-centered map history. We have since achieved so much. Our challenge today is not to plateau, or stall out, but to push forward, to bring map history to a self-sustaining position. So much of the credit with getting us to our present state lies with the Nebenzahl Lectures and the Smith Center. Now, recommitting the lectures to the pursuit of new intellectual frameworks and the center to the creation and communication of knowledge will together situate the Newberry Library at the heart of a new era for map history and ensure that Jossy and Ken’s legacy continues to grow for at least another fifty years.