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Harvard Map Collection Update

By Bonnie Burns, Head of Geospatial Resources, Harvard Map Collection


The Harvard Map Collection has had many homes since its founding almost 200 years ago. The Map Room has previously been housed in Widener and Lamont before relocating to Pusey, where it has remained since the building opened in 1976. Even with this extended tenure, the Harvard Map Collection can often seem like a hidden treasure on campus—leading many departing seniors to lament, "If only I'd found this sooner!"

The Map Collection is home to around a half a million maps, 10,000 atlases, and many terabytes of digital data; the staff provide expert assistance on all questions both geospatial and cartographic. Patrons from Harvard and elsewhere can access this wealth of historic and modern maps from around the world and beyond, including astronomical charts and maps of the moon. Harvard researchers use geographic information systems and the help of the library's digital cartographer to examine the relationships between events based on location. Working with librarians in the Government Documents group, Map Collection staff locate and combine different kinds of data into new maps or visualizations. The Map Collection is also home to a large-format scanner and a plotter, which allows for printing hard-copy reproductions of some materials.

One important goal is to find ways to apply mapping technology to the paper collection and make those antiquarian treasures available to researchers using digital humanities applications. The latest online project from the Map Collection and the Media Services group showcases this mission well. The Sea Atlas Explorer displays plates from early atlases used for navigation in a modern web mapping environment. Users can add the historic charts to a map of the world and examine how different parts of the world were shown. The site shows how early cartographers borrowed from each other, as mistakes and corrections are repeated from one atlas to another.

As the new unified service model in Lamont rolls out this September, the Map Collection will be providing orientation to all Lamont staff members about the services provided and how to help patrons find materials. This increased awareness of the Map Collection and how to use it will help students find and use these resources when they need them most.

Article written by Bonnie Burns, Head of Geospatial Resources, Harvard Map Collection.
Article published on March 30, 2016.