Hidden Cartography Treasures Uncovered at the Research Library

Imagine walking the streets of New Bedford in 1834 or shipping aboard a whaler bound towards the Pacific Ocean on a five year journey. Whether it is through a diary littered with descriptions of nineteenth century New Bedford or a journal kept onboard a whaling voyage, the Research Library’s abundance of resources grant any researcher the ability to travel backwards in time and relive the past. However, lost among the robust collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century handwritten texts is another more visual component to the Library’s holdings.

In addition to the vast quantities of logbooks, manuscripts, and printed books, the Library proudly boasts a fine collection of cartography ranging from maps of the early Old Dartmouth region to navigational charts complete with multiple voyage tracks of nineteenth century whaling vessels. However, while other Library holdings are searchable through various databases and webpages, all details concerning the cartographic objects are not accessible online. As a result, the general public has never truly known the contents of this collection outside of the following text that appears on the Museum’s website:

“The cartographic collections number around 700 pieces including sea charts used by whaling masters, bound pilot charts and atlases, decorative maps, maps and charts of key geographical regions significant to whaling at different times in history as well as maps and charts of the local Old Dartmouth region.”

Fully aware of these circumstances and driven to remedy this situation, the Library has recently generated a complete finding aid for its entire cartography collection. A finding aid promotes access to Library materials by providing an overview of a specific collection and displaying a comprehensive inventory of its contents. The online nature and keyword searchable element of finding aids allow search engines like Google to catch the text, draw researchers to the Museum’s website, and most importantly, increase awareness of a previously inaccessible portion of the Library’s holdings.

Interestingly enough, the roots for this project date back almost a decade, when a group of select Library volunteers compiled all the necessary documentary information for each piece of cartography. Library staff sought to disseminate this information to the public through the Museum’s website, but waited until technology advanced and developed the appropriate means to accommodate these lofty goals. That day finally arrived this past September when Astrid Drew, an intern from the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science, arrived at the Library’s door with the skill set needed to bring this project to fruition. Following a semester of diligent work, the finding aid debuted on the Museum’s website on December 3rd, 2013. The finished product serves as an impressive webpage documenting the entire cartography collection.

This project signifies more than the hard work of a single intern, for it serves as a working model demonstrating the Library’s anticipation in building towards the future and actively inserting itself into the ever-changing digital landscape. Although Astrid’s name appears as the author of the finding aid, this was a collective effort made possible through the vision of the Library staff and the time put forth by dedicated volunteers. Thanks to all their determination, researchers, map collectors, and even enthusiasts can finally experience the full magnitude of the Library’s cartographic collection in order to further their understanding on whaling, maritime culture, and Old Dartmouth’s past.

Visit http://www.whalingmuseum.org/explore/library/maps-charts to see the full finding aid for the Library’s cartographic collection.    

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