Global Impact

The Osher Map Library invites the whole world in.

HUMANITIES, Spring 2016, Volume 37, Number 2

Dr. Harold Osher, the retired chief of cardiology at Maine Medical Center, and his wife, Peggy, began collecting old maps in 1975 when, on a trip to London, they visited an exhibition at the British Museum related to the colonization of North America.

A color drawing of Edo, Japan, from a bird's-eye perspective.
Photo caption

This map of Edo (modern Tokyo) shows the city near the end of the Tokugawa shogunate when Japan moved away from isolationist foreign policies. The bird’s-eye perspective was popular in the late Edo period.

—Edo Meisho Ikken Sugoroku, c. 1858 / courtesy Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education

A color map of Jerusalem from the 15th century, showing the eastern cardinal direction at the top.
Photo caption

Although this map of Jerusalem may seem whimsical, scholars consider it the first modern printed map because it wasn’t created from a classical source. Lucas Brandis did follow tradition by putting east at the top. 

—Palestine, 1475 / courtesy Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education

Dr. Osher was so taken by the historic maps that he and his wife went directly to the Weinreb & Douwma map shop on Great Russell Street and asked to see any antique maps they had of Maine. The shop had several for sale.

“If you like them so much, why don’t you buy them?” Peggy Osher advised her husband, adding, “If you don’t, I will.”

The Oshers purchased two maps on the spot and returned the next day to buy three more. The very first map they bought was J. H. Colton’s 1855 map of Maine.

Forty years later, Dr. Osher calls that day in 1975 his “awakening.” The appeal old maps hold for him is almost physical. “I am very visually oriented,” he explains, “in my medical practice, in my reading, and in my interest in history. Maps let me see history.”

In 1989, the Oshers made local history by donating their extensive map collection to the University of Southern Maine to create what has become the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education. This sweeping collection occupies parts of three floors of the Glickman Family Library, a landmark building, on the Portland campus, that was once a plumbing supply warehouse and, before that, an industrial bakery. The collection now runs to some 450,000 maps, spanning five centuries, and 272 globes, the second largest collection of globes in a U.S. public institution after the Library of Congress. The library fills 19,000 square feet of space with a reading room, a gallery, offices, a digital lab, and a classroom on the ground floor, and storage on the second and third, including a vault with nonaqueous fire suppression for the most rare and valuable maps and globes.

But the Osher Map Library, which opened in the fall of 1994, is actually the result of the collecting passions and generosity of two couples.

In 1986, Eleanor Houston Smith (1910–1987) had donated the Smith Collection of 458 sheet maps, 685 atlases, and 62 globes to USM to honor her late husband, Lawrence M. C. Smith (1902–1975). The Smiths, a Philadelphia couple, were ardent environmentalists, who purchased a saltwater farm in Freeport, Maine, in 1946, the same year they began a collection of antique and contemporary maps and atlases of all kinds that focused on the northeast corner of the United States. The Smiths’ Wolfe’s Neck Farm is now a nonprofit devoted to sustainable agriculture.

Matthew Edney, the library’s faculty scholar, was hired in 1995 after the Oshers gave their collection to the university. He says the Osher became something quite different from older, better-known map libraries such as the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University or the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, which were run for many decades by scholar-librarians.

“All these libraries were created before 1930, housed in beautiful neoclassical buildings, and were kind of like giant gentlemen’s clubs with books,” says Edney. “Harold Osher’s advisers told him that model was dead, so what Harold did instead was hire a faculty scholar to teach with the collection, to help with its development, but not to run the place.”

Edney earned his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin and was mentored by David Woodward, who headed the massive NEH-funded History of Cartography project there. When Woodward died in 2004, Edney took over the project, which he still directs in addition to working at the Osher.

It was Edney who started the library’s website in 1996, an online presence that now brings the Osher’s holdings to collectors, students, scholars, and researchers worldwide.

“We are not only putting images online, but good information about those images,” says Edney.

“Early map collections are generally not much utilized,” he says. “With Internet use that’s less of a concern, but we pride ourselves on providing not just maps and images but background information to integrate the materials—how the map was made, who made it, how it was used. We’re pretty much unique in that regard.”

Digitizing maps not only makes them more readily available to a wider audience, it can also reveal information not always available to the naked eye. The digitizing of the Revolutionary War-era Map of the Most Inhabited Part of New England, for example, allowed Edney to examine it and discover how British General Hugh Percy had pieced the map together from four sections and annotated it with strategic information, something he had not noticed in ten years of looking at it.

“High-quality digital imagery can thus extend as well as supplement our analyses (as when making faint or abraded features legible),” wrote Edney in a scholarly paper entitled “Hugh, Earl Percy Remakes his Map of New England.”

Close to 90 percent of the library’s 7,000 sheet maps have been scanned and are available online, but the vast majority are in bound atlases, only 10 percent of which have been digitized to date.

To create these high-quality images, two digital-imaging technicians are kept busy turning ancient maps, atlases, and globes into digital documents that will be accessible online. David Neikirk and Adinah Barnett work painstakingly in a darkroom equipped with multiple editing computers, lights, hoods, backdrops, diffusers, and an Ortery 3-D camera system. An example of their work is the digital likeness of a 1606 celestial globe by Willem Blaeu, a pupil of astronomer Tycho Brahe, for which they took 219 separate images. The globe was photographed on its stand (known as its “furniture”) and without its furniture; then the furniture itself was photographed. All these images became a kind of virtual flip book before editing turned them into a seamless digital image. The finished product is a 3-D image accessible online, but the library does not use the digital files to construct reproductions of their globes.

“We are the first institution in the world to create a fully rotatable, 360-degree, fully zoomable scan of a globe,” says Ian Fowler, director of the Osher Map Library, as he conducts a tour of the library.

Digitizing the collection is a way of making the maps available to a much larger audience than the few scholars who find their way to the Osher. In reality and virtual reality, however, the map library remains something of an undiscovered gem on the commuter campus of a state university.

In 2015, for example, only 908 people visited the featured exhibition gallery, and fewer than 400 used the library reading room. All that may be changing under Fowler and a new USM president. In the first quarter of 2016, 547 people had already visited the gallery and 349 had used the reading room as the library increased its weekly open hours from 12 to 32, and a popular “Women in Cartography” exhibition drew in visitors.

Fowler, formerly at the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, took over as director in September 2014. His enthusiasm for the maps and globes in his care is infectious, and he has made it his mission to promote a greater appreciation for them among students, scholars, and the general public.

“The Smiths and Oshers are both incredible collectors,” says Fowler. “The versions of maps we have are the cleanest, most colorful, most beautiful, and earliest states.”

The Osher Map Library’s greatest hits were featured in “Masterpieces at USM: Celebrating Five Centuries of Rare Maps and Globes” (November 19, 2015, to March 12, 2016). One of the stars of the show was a colorful world map published by Nicolas Visscher in Amsterdam in 1657.

Created for Dutch Bibles, the Visscher Orbis Terrarum features not only the continents and the heavens but also spandrels illustrated with allegorical figures representing the four continents—Europe with a bull, Asia on a camel, Africa riding an alligator, and America on an armadillo.

“This is not a way-finding map but a conceptual map,” explains Fowler, “an expression of the world in religious and cosmological terms.”

A more graphic example of a conceptual map is a 1581 world map by Heinrich Bünting that takes the shape of a three-leaf clover: Jerusalem sits where the leaflets representing Asia, Africa, and Europe meet. America makes a furtive appearance in the lower left corner.

Among the other masterpieces is the library’s oldest piece, Lucas Brandis’s 1475 Jerusalem-centric map of the Holy Land, considered to be the first modern printed map. There are also Dr. Osher’s favorites, a rare copy of a 1494 letter from Christopher Columbus detailing his discovery of the New World; the much sought-after 1513 Strassburg edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia in which the New World makes its first tentative appearance; and Abraham Ortelius’s 1575 Theatrum Orbis Terrarium, the first atlas.

The library has a substantial collection of maps from China, Japan, and Ottoman Turkey. The most noteworthy of the non-Western maps is a nineteenth-century copy of Ferdinand Verbiest’s elegant, hand-colored woodblock world map first published at Peking in 1674. It also owns a full set of the fabulous 1662–1672 Atlas Maior by Willem and Joan Blaeu. The 11-volume Blaeu atlas was the largest and most expensive book published in the seventeenth century, containing 4,608 pages and 594 maps. The atlas was intended to be part of an even larger work, but the Blaeu workshop burned in 1672, and Joan Blaeu died the following year.

“It’s 1662, but it looks so perfect!” enthuses Fowler as he carefully opens a 354-year-old volume to a map with colors so crisp and bright it looks as though it might have been printed yesterday.

For the Osher Library, it is not enough to be a repository of maps as objects of beauty or curiosity. Preservation and conservation are critical to its mission of cartographic education. In 2008 the library received a $466,009 preservation grant from NEH to purchase storage systems and construct map vaults. In 2014 the library also received a $260,000 NEH grant to help with the ongoing conservation of its globe collection.

That 1606 Willem Blaeu globe, for example, was not just dusted off for its digital close-up. It first had to be prepared by conservators from Studio TKM, a Somerville, Massachusetts, firm commissioned to restore the library’s pre-1900 globes.

When Studio TKM got the Blaeu globe, the plaster over papier-mâché sphere was dented and spongy in places, and the 12 gores, arcs of paper that allow a two-dimensional map to be wrapped around a round object, were loose and cracked, according to a 2015 report by Studio TKM. The meridian ring was broken, and the globe stand was in rough shape as well. The globe was removed, and the oak stand was sent to East Point Furniture Conservation for restoration.

Studio TKM conservators cleaned the surface of the globe with erasers and methylcellulose, steamed off loose gore sections, repaired the sphere with plaster, pasted the gore sections back on, filled lost paper with matching papers and then glazed the surface. The horizon ring paper was also steamed off and blotter washed, and the circumferential lines were digitally reproduced before the paper was pasted back on the ring. The broken brass meridian ring was cleaned, repaired, and recoated before the globe was placed back in its restored furniture.

Preserving and publishing the maps online not only makes them more accessible, it also prepares the map library to assume a more prominent educational role at USM.

Glenn Cummings, former speaker of the Maine House of Representatives, became USM’s president in July 2015. One of the first things he did was reach out to Dr. Osher to discuss the place of the map library in the university and in the community.

“Being a metropolitan university is not just about how USM benefits from our engagement in the community,” says Cummings, “but also how the community benefits from the resources USM offers. The Osher Map Library is a great example of this. The incredible collection is both a tremendous resource for USM and our students, and it is also a tremendous resource to the community.”

Just what the library’s role will be in the life of USM remains to be seen, but Edney says, “We are trying to position ourselves within the university in terms of hands-on research with primary resources.”

The Osher website features a selection of commentaries and exhibitions prepared by Edney’s cartography students. Among the projects are fascinating exhibitions on “Maps of Route 66: How Road Maps Built an American Legend” and “Getting there was Half the Fun: Traveling aboard a Transatlantic Ocean Liner in the 1960s.”

Edney’s own experience is that maps are extremely cross-disciplinary.

“One of the things I like about my job is that over the course of a year it involves looking at books in every letter of the Library of Congress classification from A to Z,” says Edney. “What mapping history is doing is looking at how people look at the world, how people function in the world. The study of early mapping engages the arts through the humanities to the social sciences.”

But the resources aren’t just for the university’s students and scholars: The Osher uses its maps to engage schoolchildren, too. “It’s through the Smith Center for Cartographic Education that we can reach so many students throughout Maine,” says Fowler.

Renee Keul works with close to 3,000 students a year as the library’s K–12 education outreach coordinator. On this particular day, she has her hands full with 85 third graders from a Portland elementary school. The kids pore over real and facsimile maps for a unit on local history.

Of all the information contained in the old maps, the thing that excites the kids the most is finding that there was once a pickle factory in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood. The pickle factory is just a tiny, yellow rectangle in the 1914 Richards Atlas of the City of Portland, in which wooden buildings are yellow, brick buildings pink, and stone structures brown, but the kids find this feature of the incredibly detailed map amusing. (Ironically, four years after the atlas was published, the E. E. Clifford & Company pickle factory burned down. The cause of the fire was listed as “children.”)

“Maps give students a pretty good visual connection to the way a community used to be set up, and they can make connections to areas and buildings today,” says Keul of the allure maps hold for children. “They get really excited about change and things they can recognize.”

Maps are diagrammatic representations of the known world, as it was, as it is, and as we imagine it to be. Dr. Osher, who has given his maps, his money, his time, and his name to the library, believes the appeal of maps to people of all ages is pretty easy to understand.

“It’s an example of a common aphorism—a picture is worth a thousand words,” he says. “If that’s so, then a map is worth 100,000 words. Maps speak to all aspects of human thought and activity.”