Now Anyone Can Visit One of the World's Great Map Collections

David Rumsey spent decades collecting more than 150,000 maps, and a new center lets the public explore them like never before.

Stanford, Calif. -The new David Rumsey Map Center at Stanford University feels like a secret clubhouse for map lovers. To get there, you pass through a nondescript door in the library and climb two flights of stairs. But it’s not just any stairwell: The walls are painted floor to ceiling with colorful maps.

At the top, glass doors etched with George Montague Wheeler’s 1883 topographical map of Yosemite Valley open into a large room where slowly spinning globes sit atop wood bookcases stuffed with ancient atlases. A wall-sized screen cycles through images of ancient and modern maps.

The center, which opens Tuesday, houses more than 150,000 maps, atlases, and globes collected over several decades by David Rumsey, a San Francisco real estate developer and investor with a passion for maps, and for sharing them.

The collection is especially strong in maps from the 18th and 19th centuries, a period that saw the birth of modern mapmaking. It includes incredibly detailed maps of France made by the Cassini family between 1750 and 1815; the 182 sheets placed side by side would form a map 39 feet high by 38 feet wide. Also here are Francis Amasa Walker’s statistical atlases based on late 19th century U.S. Censuses, books still admired today for their pioneering information graphics.

 

George Montague Wheeler’s topographic map of the Yosemite Valley was the inspiration for the center’s etched glass doors.
Courtesy Stanford University, David Rumsey Map Center

“It’s one of the biggest private map collections around,” says Matt Knutzen, the geospatial librarian at the New York Public Library, which has an enormous map collection of its own. “But what’s more impressive from my perspective is that he’s developed it almost as a public resource.”

Maps for All

From the beginning, Rumsey says he collected maps to give them away.

Anyone with a scholarly interest can ask to examine the paper maps or use a variety of digital displays to zoom in on the finest details. Rumsey demonstrates using a 12-by-seven-foot touch screen mounted on a wall to show off a 1837 map of the Danube river, sliding a bar on-screen to fade in and out between the old map, in which the river splits and meanders just below Vienna, and a modern satellite image, in which the river has been confined to a razor straight channel.

Now 71, Rumsey is like a kid with a new toy. “There, look at that!” he says.

Rumsey’s path in life has taken some twists and turns of its own. As an undergraduate at Yale in the late sixties, he co-founded a performance art group, the Pulsa Group. They used integrated circuits to build synthesizers and experiment with sound and light. Their show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City earned a mention in Vogue magazine and a portrait by the famous photographer Irving Penn (Rumsey is the one in the parka with the hood pulled up).

“We didn’t believe in the art market; we thought it was corrupt,” Rumsey says. “We wanted to make art that was free and open to everybody.”

By the time Rumsey was 30, the group was splitting up and Rumsey soon went to work for a childhood friend who’d gone into finance. “He said, ‘Look, this will be the business school education you never got,’” Rumsey says. Later, he spent 20 years investing in real estate for the Atlantic Philanthropies, raising money for the charity and doing well—very well—for himself.
 

The walls of the staircase leading up to the David Rumsey Map Center are decorated with maps housed in the Map Center, including a world map from an 1862 French atlas (left) and a 1666 Dutch map depicting California as an island (right).

 


Photograph by Wayne Vanderkuil, Stanford Libraries

“I was very determined that the whole point was to achieve blast-off and get out,” he says. In 1995, at age 50, he resigned.

He’d been collecting maps for about a decade by then. “I've always had the feeling that there's a physiological pleasure that comes from looking at maps if you're so wired,” he says. “It's almost a brain thing.” He was amassing quite a collection—not just of maps, but also detailed records and notes—and was wrestling with what to do with it all. Just then, the Internet came along.

He started scanning the maps and uploading them. “When we launched the site in ‘99, people were still on dial-up for their Internet connections, and I remember several map librarians complaining that our images were too large,” Rumsey says. “We stuck to our guns and said look, this is all going to get faster and better.”

At the time there wasn’t good software for organizing and displaying big images online, so Rumsey started a company, Luna Imaging, and developed his own. Luna’s software is used today by dozens of libraries, museums, and other institutions.

“It was ahead of its time,” says Knutzen. Luna did what’s now called image tiling. The idea is to send huge image files across the Internet by chopping them into smaller pieces and sending only what a user’s screen can display at a given time. It’s the reason Google Maps doesn’t paralyze your iPhone.

To date, Rumsey has scanned and uploaded about 68,000 maps to his website, a little less than half his collection. The scanning will continue, both at his home and at Stanford, until the entire collection is online.

A Rare Collection

For many years, Rumsey focused mainly on maps made in the 19th century. “Mapmaking underwent a fundamental shift in that period,” says Susan Schulten, a historian at the University of Denver who studied Rumsey’s collection for her 2012 book Mapping the Nation.

Up to that point, she explains, maps depicted physical features of the environment—mountains, rivers, cities, roads, and so on. But in the 19th century, mapmakers began to map things like disease outbreaks and social conditions. Governments started collecting demographic data in national censuses and measuring temperature, rainfall, and other climate features.

When they layered those maps on top of one another, they began to make connections that weren’t obvious from the raw data (malarial hotspots in low lying coastal areas of the American southeast, for instance). “You could see entirely new patterns once you married geography to data,” Schulten says.

Deardra Fuzzell works with David Rumsey before the map center opening.
Photograph by LL.A. Cicero, Stanford News Service

In the last few years, Rumsey rounded out his collection with older and newer maps, from early 17th century atlases to 20th century pictorial maps of American cities. “I realized the collection was going to used not just by myself,” he says.

Having devoted much of his life to collecting maps, Rumsey seems surprisingly at ease with the idea of giving them all away. He insists there weren’t any maps in his collection that he couldn’t bear to part with. “I’m not a possessive collector,” he says. “What I’m most excited about is acquiring something other people can learn from and use.”

For now, the center will be reserved for classes and faculty in the morning, and open to the public in the afternoon.

Daily operations will be overseen by G. Salim Mohammed, the center's new head and curator. Mohammed and Rumsey worked closely together on the design details of the new space, down to choosing which maps to hang on the walls. Both say they’re looking forward to seeing how people end up using it.

Rumsey says he could see environmental scientists using maps in the collection to trace changing river courses or disappearing wetlands, or medical historians using the statistical atlases to study past outbreaks. Mohammed hopes to get computer science students interested in developing character recognition algorithms to extract place names and other text from scanned maps.

The space feels like some combination of museum, laboratory, and classroom, with room leftover for… well, who knows. “The future defines what this place is,” Rumsey says.

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