Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

America's Birth Certificate

Archivists and others interested in cartographic materials will want to add to their personal library the new book by the noted map collector Seymour I. Schwartz. Putting ‘America’ on the Map: The Story of the Most Important Graphic Document in the History of the United States (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007) tells the story of the creation, subsequent history, rediscovery, and purchase (for $10 million) by the Library of Congress of the 1507 Martin Waldseemüller map using the name “America” for the first time.

In this rollicking, sometimes rambling, account of the map, Schwartz provides in-depth information about such early printed maps were produced and how they become prized catches by private and institutional collectors alike. Some readers will want to focus more on the details about such maps, and this map in particular, and the scholarly debates concerning it, while others will relish the descriptions of the efforts to acquire it and related copies competing with it.

For my own part I mostly enjoyed the relish with which Schwartz dotes on this interesting map. Here is a typical passage in his book: “The discovery of a long sought after piece of history evokes excitement in the world of scholars and an equal and perhaps even more emotional response from collectors and their agents.” Referencing the 1901 discovery of the maps, Schwartz continues, “Because that find pertained to the history and heritage of the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world, the reaction was amplified and the stakes were raised. The map responsible for the designation of continental land in the New World as ‘American’ and considered the birth certificate for the nation that incorporates ‘America’ in its name immediately evoked significant interest. Individual collectors and curators responsible for maintaining and expanding distinguished institutional collections pulsated with excitement at the chance to acquire the map. Book and map dealers, with antennae constantly sensing opportunities in their roles as scouts and procurers for collectors and curators, were also energized” (pp. 207-208). If you are looking for a scholarly history of mapmaking, then this is not the book; but if you are looking for a good story about maps, give it a try.