The Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education is already well known to map scholars and historians for its collection of some 500,000 maps, dating back to 1475.
But, in September, the 26-year-old Portland institution added to its national reputation through its inclusion in an online collaboration called “Mapping A World of Cities,” which features pieces from 10 of the top map libraries in the country, including the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, the MacLean Collection Map Library in Illinois, the Harvard Map Collection and the Library of Congress.
The project allows the collections of these major map libraries to be viewed together, something that would be difficult and very costly to do if 400-year-old maps had to be transported around the country. Covering four centuries, the project shows how cities have changed over the years – economically, geographically and otherwise – as the science of cartography changed too. Nine maps from the Osher library’s collection are part of the 90-map project.
“They are absolutely one of the top map libraries, certainly the strongest collection in Northern New England,” Garrett Dash Nelson, curator of maps and geographic scholarship at the the Leventhal center, said of Osher.
Libby Bischof, executive director of the Osher Map Library, said it was “certainly an honor” to be asked to participate in “Mapping A World of Cities” with other major map libraries. She hopes the project will make more people aware of what the Portland institution has to offer, including exhibits, more than 75,000 pieces fully digitized for online access and public programs including school tours.
The library is part of the University of Southern Maine and is located on the Portland campus. Besides maps, the library’s collections include rare globes, atlases, navigational charts and related items. The library’s gallery is currently hosting a show inspired by the state’s bicentennial: “Mapping Maine: The Land and Its Peoples, 1677-1842.”
“People in Maine don’t always realize what we have here,” said Bischof. “We don’t want to be a hidden gem.”
HELPING TO MAP THE WORLD
The “Mapping A World of Cities” collaboration started about 18 months ago as an “experiment” to see if maps from prestigious collections could be part of the same show, virtually, said Nelson at the Leventhal center. It went live online in September.
“For years, the model was a touring exhibition, with these maps that are so fragile and costly, that would be a difficult thing to do,” said Nelson. “We were looking for another way to use all these collections together, to tell the amazing story of cartography.”
Nelson said the project required high-quality digitized versions of maps, something the Osher Map Library is known for among cultural institutions. Nelson said Osher is also known for being able to digitize old, fragile maps with great detail and clarity, through a combination of cutting-edge equipment and staff expertise. Nelson said the Leventhal center has been a customer of Osher’s, having had some bound atlases and other materials digitized in Portland.
“It’s not a case of just snapping a picture. They have a very high standards there,” said Nelson.
Chronologically, the “Mapping A World of Cities” online exhibit starts with a 1520s map of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire and the site of present-day Mexico City, Mexico. The map, a view of the city as the Spanish saw it, is the earliest known map of a city in the Americas. By zooming in, one can see the illustrations and figures common on early maps, including castle-like structures, bridges and boats being powered by oarsmen.
The map view was made shortly before the city was completely destroyed by the Spanish. Other city views from the 1500s and 1600s in the project include Jerusalem, St. Augustine, Florida in 1589 and Manatus, or Manhattan in New York, in 1639. The latter was drawn on location and is one of earliest views of Manhattan, showing Dutch farms and the names of their owners. The maps in the project, with text and links to information from their institution of origin, can be viewed at leventhalmap.org. You can search it by following a timeline or by entering the name of a region or of a map library.
Osher Map Library’s contributions to “Mapping A World of Cities” include a 1593 view of Seville, Spain, showing colorful buildings and the mocking parade of a man and his unfaithful wife through the town. Another of the Osher maps in the project, the 1927 “Chicago’s Gangland,” was drawn to illustrate a sociologist’s book on the “1,313 gangs in Chicago” at the time. Another map from the Osher library depicts New Amsterdam in 1662, just two years before the English captured it and renamed it New York.
Several Maine maps from the Osher library collection are in the project too, including a colorful 1836 map of Portland from printer and engraver John Cullum. Several historic buildings which no longer exist are illustrated in great detail. The map also includes the first known published image of the city’s historic Abyssinian Meeting House, a gathering place for the local Black community, Bischof said.
There’s also an 1876 map giving a “Bird’s Eye View” of Portland, which was popular at the time. Artists would sketch the buildings and depict the city from above. The map is from just a decade after the Great Fire of 1866 and shows how much of the city had been rebuilt. In the age before Google maps, maps of a city like Portland were seen as a way to promote the city and show it off, and they were often sold by subscription, Bischof said.
An 1856 map of Camden from the Osher collection helps illustrate that point. While Camden today is a small town compared to many cities in the “Mapping A World of Cities” online exhibit, in 1856, it was a bustling port whose merchants had grand visions for its future. The large wall map showed prominent residents, businesses, shipyards and the ice-cutting operations in nearby Rockport.
“Maps then were objects of power, and it showed what the people commissioning the map thought of their city,” said Nelson.
DONORS BUILD A LEGACY
The Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education takes its name from two families that were cornerstones of its founding. In 1986, Eleanor Houston Smith donated a collection of maps, atlases and globes in memory of her late husband, Lawrence M.C. Smith, to USM. Lawrence Smith had served in the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. The Smiths were from Philadelphia originally but spent summers in Maine for years, on a farm in Freeport, which they bought in the 1940s. They donated some of their land and property for use as Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park, to the Freeport Historical Society and to other groups. The Smith collection includes 458 sheet maps, 685 atlases and books, and 62 terrestrial and celestial globes from the 16th through 20th century.
In 1989, Maine residents Dr. Harold L. Osher and his wife, Peggy L. Osher, donated their map collection to USM. Dr. Osher is a former director of cardiology at Maine Medical Center who began collecting around 1975, in London. Peggy Osher, who died in 2018, was known for her dedication to the arts in Portland, from donating famous works to Portland schools to her long involvement with the Portland Museum of Art. She served as chair of the museum’s education and collections committees and, with her husband, established the Peggy and Harold Osher Acquisitions Fund.
The Oshers’ collection includes many thousand pieces – sheet maps, atlases, globes, books and surveying instruments – dating from the 15th though the 20th century.
In 1994, with both collections in hand, The Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education opened in the Portland campus library. The map library got a new and larger facility, attached to the Glickman Family Library, in 2009. It includes a gallery for exhibits that often holds 40 to 50 pieces, a reference room where people can use materials for research and where many globes are displayed, and 90-seat auditorium.
In 2018, Harold Osher formally turned over his and his wife’s entire collection – loosely valued at $100 million – to the Osher Map Library, as well as an undisclosed amount of cash to supplement what was then a $3 million endowment for the library.
The Osher Map Library was closed to the public for much of this year due to the pandemic but reopened Aug. 30. The current exhibit, “Mapping Maine: The Land and its Peoples, 1677-1842,” on display through March 20, is open to the public, by appointment, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. People can reserve timed admission online at the map library’s website. Admission is free.
The exhibit features original maps dating back to the late 1600s, when mapmakers showed New England as one coastal region. Other maps show how Maine land was divided up and granted to institutions in both Maine and Massachusetts. Some maps show the top of Maine as open-ended, since they were made before a formal boundary with Canada was agreed up. Others show how much Maine has grown.
Some of the maps help show how over time how native Wabanaki nations’ names for places were wiped out, along with ownership of the land. In a section of the exhibit called “The Persistence of the Penobscot,” there’s a modern map showing the Penobscot names for various towns, rivers and bays in Maine. The Penobscot names are by and large utilitarian. The Penobscot name for Belfast for example meant “out of the way” because the Penobscot’s normal course of travels did not take them there.
The Osher map library has a focus on sharing its collection with the public, through exhibits, student visits and the internet. So the online “Mapping a World of Cities” fits nicely with its mission.
“With our digital pieces, anyone can browse them, zoom in and see all the detail of one,” said Bischof. “Having so many pieces digitized has been a real blessing this year, when people couldn’t get physically close to them.”