By HELEN DALRYMPLE
The Library's Geography and Map Division (G&M) has custody of the largest map and atlas collection in the world—some 4.8 million maps, 65,0000 atlases, 500 globes and other cartographic materials—which is housed two floors underground in the James Madison Building on Capitol Hill. The 8,300 map cases, 45 deep in some areas and often four- or five-drawer cases high, stretch a whole city block, or the equivalent of two football fields.
A large percentage of the division's Titled Collection, comprising uncataloged single-sheet maps, are housed in these map cases in highly acidic folders which may damage the maps over time. The maps date from the 1600s to 1969, when the division began to catalog individual maps and create online records for them
"This unique, valuable and historical collection is the most heavily used of all G&M collections," says Mike Buscher, leader of the Collections Management Team.
In the mid-1990s, the former chief of G&M, Ralph Ehrenberg, proposed a project to rehouse and create online records for the 1.8 million maps in the Titled Collection. He estimated that it would take two, two-person teams 20 years to rehouse, relabel, conserve and create online records for the whole collection.
More recently, the Library's Preservation Division initiated conservation "swat teams" to work with specific collections around the Library that needed preventative maintenance.
"The Geography and Map Division had the perfect project," said Buscher. "We had important materials at risk and in need of preventive conservation or rehousing. We had the space and facilities which would allow contract staff to work directly with the materials." The division submitted the proposed project, and it was accepted and funded as part of the Preventive Conservation Management Decision Package (MDEP) for fiscal year 2003.
Initially, according to Buscher, the project was to work on pre-1900 materials relating to the United States, but a survey of the collection confirmed that most of the maps acquired before the mid-1960s were housed in highly acidic folders and, in many cases, needed conservation treatment. Thus, the rehousing project that began in January of this year is approaching the collection on a state-by-state basis, starting with the earliest materials and working up to 1970, when the division began housing all incoming maps in acid-free folders. Buscher estimated that the project would involve approximately 400,000 items.
The Library hired History Associates Incorporated (HAI), based in Rockville, Md., to carry out the rehousing project. Their team of trained professional archivists (one team leader with three staff on site) has been working on the maps in the Geography and Map Division since Jan. 6.
Anita Weber, project manager for HAI, explained how the team approaches its work: "Each member of the team works with a specific state. Working drawer-by-drawer, they verify the information on the old folder, such as the name of the state; the city, county or administrative unit; the year; the scale; the author; the publisher; whether it is in color; other annotations; whether it has been used in an exhibition or cited in a bibliography; and whether there is text or illustrations on the verso of the map. And then they transfer all of this information to a new, acid-free folder."
If the map is folded, the team members unfold it, slip it in a mylar sleeve for further protection (but leave it unsealed) and then return it to the new, acid-free folder. If any of the maps need additional conservation attention, team members note this on a record sheet for each drawer, so that G&M staff members who use the maps have accurate information on the condition of each of the maps. The final step is to create an online record for each of the maps.
"The key to the project," said Russell Knodle, G&M technical information specialist who is the immediate supervisor of the project, "is to preserve and protect the maps; to get them unfolded, protect them with mylar and acid-free paper."
Weber said that the project was a lot more physically demanding than they had anticipated, but that they are finding "some pretty amazing maps." She mentioned as an example a late 19th- century New Hampshire map which gives a 360-degree view from the top of a mountain.
Weber emphasized that HAI, a company with a background of historical and litigation research, checks and rechecks its work and emphasizes "100 percent quality control." In addition, Knodle works with HAI on a daily basis to act as a "second set of eyes," and Warner Haun of the Conservation Division does random checks of each contractor's work.
"It's been months since he's found anything wrong" said Weber with a chuckle.
Each of the contractors completes about 65 maps a day, with the team clearing some 1,000 maps a week. So far HAI has completed work on nine states: Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina; and they are now working on Louisiana, South Carolina, Connecticut and New Jersey. This amounts to a total of more than 45,000 maps and 39,000 folders, many of them with multiple copies of maps or multiple sheets of a single map.
Buscher is clearly delighted with the progress that HAI is making in rehousing the division's heavily used U.S. maps. "We've wanted to do this for decades, but this is the first time that we've had the people and the funding to do it."