Harvard Maps Collection


The Harvard Map Collection is one of the largest and oldest collections of cartographic materials in the United States. It was formed with the gift of the Ebeling Collection of 10,000 maps and books, purchased by Israel Thorndike and presented to the University in 1818. Christoph Daniel Ebeling, a professor of Greek and History at the Gymnasium in Hamburg, was an authority on America. It was during the preparation of his significant Erdbeschreibung und Geschichte von Amerika (1793–1816) that he acquired many maps of North America. Although the seven published volumes of the Erdbeschreibung included no maps, Ebeling enlisted the aid of geographer Daniel Friederich Sotzmann to compile and draft maps for an Atlas von Nordamerika. While 18 maps were drawn, only 10 were actually published, and Harvard is one of the few American collections to have all 10 copies of these rare maps.

With this solid beginning, the Harvard Map Collection slowly increased in size. The collection of New England cartographic materials grew substantially in the era of Reconstruction following the Civil War. This was the great railroad building period, as well as one of significant urban growth. Boston's population increased from 177,840 in 1860 to 560,842 in 1900, and Harvard's collection of Boston and New England maps reflects this growth. With the appointment of Justin Winsor as Librarian in 1877, acquisitions increased in all areas. Winsor identified the map collection as an area for expansion and used the collection extensively for his own research, specifically his Bibliography of Ptolemy's Geography (Cambridge, 1884) and Bibliography of the Kohl Collection of Maps Relating to America (Washington, GPO, 1904). With the opening of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library in 1915, the map collection was given more appropriate accommodations and renamed the Winsor Memorial Map Room.

The collection grew steadily during the two world wars and received a large influx of maps in 1957. The closing of Harvard's Institute of Geographical Exploration resulted in 90,000 sheet maps being transferred to the Map Collection, thereby increasing holdings in every geographical area. In 1962, the library commissioned R.A. Skelton of the British Museum to survey the Harvard Map Collection and report on its future. Skelton recommended better cataloging and improved accommodations. The collection moved to the Lamont Library in 1964 and then to its present location in Pusey Library in 1976.

Since its inception almost two centuries ago, the Harvard Map Collection has grown to encompass 400,000 maps, 6,000 atlases, and 5,000 reference books. The library's collections include rare editions of Mercator, Ortelius, and Ptolemaic atlases, as well as large-scale current topographic maps for geographic areas throughout the world. The collection also includes early state maps, county maps, and town maps from the mid-19th century. While these maps are often located among random local repositories, they are seldom found in such numbers in a centralized research collection.

One of the most notable sections of the collection is its strong holdings of New England maps. Among these maps is the very rare 1753 "Plan of the British Dominions of New England" published by Boston physician William Douglas, which became the source for the very popular Jefferys "Map of the Most Inhabited Part of New England," published two years later. The collection also includes examples from one of New England's most notable cartographers, Osgood Carleton. His published maps for Boston, Maine, and Massachusetts are represented in the collection, as well as a Maine map in manuscript. The Sotzmann maps and a unique series of early state maps drawn by such cartographers as Samuel Holland, James Whitelaw, Amos Doolittle, and H.F. Walling, are among the first examples of American cartography, representing the new republic's definition of its boundaries and transportation systems.

Another signal strength of the Harvard Map Collection lies in its holdings of early railroad maps. Included are railroad plans and surveys for railroads that grew far beyond New England, along with many that either went out of business prematurely or were never developed beyond the planning stage. A small sampling of this collection includes the 1828 survey for a railroad from Boston to the Connecticut River; an 1838 plan for the Boston and Worcester Railroad; an 1845 railroad route from Boston to Lake Champlain; an 1845 Vermont Central Railroad map; an 1845 Portsmouth and Concord Railroad map; an 1850 European and North American Railroad map; and an 1850 proposed railroad from Boston to Burlington.

The Massachusetts collection is by far the largest, and includes a rare manuscript map of the state dating from the mid-18th century. A unique collection of unpublished county maps by H.F. Walling are extant as publisher's proofs and many of the early 1830s Massachusetts town surveys and plans of individual towns are also included. Numerous maps, some in manuscript, of Boston and Cambridge from the colonial period will also be found.

Harvard's New England map collection is complemented by extraordinary book and manuscript collections in American history, colonial history, and New England history. The Harvard College Library's local history sources are well developed and include a significant collection of pamphlet materials dealing with individuals and New England history. The printed materials documenting New England are also chronologically comprehensive.

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