BY JOHN HÉBERT
Walter W. Ristow, former chief of the Library's Geography and Map Division, died on April 3 in his home in Mitchellville, Md. He was 97.
Born April 20, 1908, in La Crosse, Wis., Ristow devoted his life to the study of cartography, the history of cartography, map librarianship and map collecting. He received his formal training in geography from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (bachelor's, 1931), Oberlin College, Ohio (master's in geography and geology, 1933) and Clark University of Worcester, Mass. (doctorate in geography, 1937).
Upon completion of his graduate work, Ristow became head of the Map Division of the New York Public Library in 1937 and served as chief before leaving in 1946 for the Library of Congress. While in New York, he served with the Military Intelligence Service as a wartime map analyst, from 1941 to 1944. He moved to Washington in 1946 to begin his 32-year career in the Geography and Map Division, which he served as assistant chief (1946-1968) and chief (1968-1978). After retirement he was named honorary consultant in the History of American Cartography at the Library (1978-1987).
Ristow believed that maps should be in the hands of the people. Throughout his career, he introduced maps to a wide audience through his writing, map exhibitions at the Library of Congress and New York Public Library, and in a campaign to encourage U.S. petroleum companies to continue their practice of distributing free U.S. road maps through their service stations to generations of American travelers; he was disappointed when this practice stopped.
He devoted substantial energies to the scholarly organizations in his field, including the Cartography Division of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping and the Association of American Geographers. He was a co-organizer of both the Washington Map Society and the Geography and Map Libraries Section of the International Federation of Library Associations. He was editor, consulting editor or advisory editor for several scholarly journals, including the Canadian Cartographer, Imago Mundi, Acta Cartographica and The Map Collector. He was a member and vice chairman (1954-57), and chairman (1957-59) of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
His long list of publications prepared between 1933 and the late 1980s includes "The Emergence of Maps in Libraries" (1980), the prized "American Maps and Mapmakers: Commercial Cartography in the Nineteenth Century" (1985) and, with R.A. Skelton, "Nautical Charts on Vellum in the Library of Congress" (1977). He edited "A la Carte; Selected Papers on Maps and Atlases" (1972), "Marketing Maps of the United States" (1951, 1952 and 1958) and "Aviation Cartography" (1956, 1957 and 1960). He was a regular contributor to Surveying and Mapping (Distinctive Recent Maps 1948-68), The Map Collector and the Quarterly Journal of the Library.
During his direction of the Geography and Map Division, he oversaw the development of machine-readable cataloging for cartographic objects (MARC maps). He was presented the Distinguished Service Award by the Library of Congress in 1978. During his career he received honors from the Special Libraries Association, the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping and the Association of American Geographers. He was a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington.
Following his retirement, the Walter W. Ristow Endowment Fund of the Library of Congress was established in 1998 for the advancement of understanding of the Geography and Map Division Collections and American cartography. The Ristow Prize of the Washington Map Society is presented annually for the most outstanding submission on the history of cartography.
He leaves three sons, W. Richard, William and Stephen; three grandchildren; and three brothers.
John Hébert is the chief of the Geography and Map Division.