Newly acquired map collection contains 18,500 original classics

By Gary E. Weir, Ph.D., National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency historian

During this past summer, sheer chance and modern correspondence — a series of emails — presented NGA’s history staff with an opportunity to get a first-hand glimpse of the past. We now have a selection of, among other items, captured German World War II maps, briefing maps from Vietnam, extensive maps of Asia and the Pacific islands, and pre-World War II maps of the United States. We now have original work with which we can visually demonstrate NGA’s deep roots in the cartographic world.

Just weeks before preparation of this issue of Pathfinder began, 18,500 maps arrived at the NGA Campus East loading dock to become part of the collection held by our Historical Research Center. For the first time, we have original classic maps produced by the Engineer Production Plant, the Army Map Service and the Defense Mapping Agency between 1929 and 1996.

We discovered the maps completely by accident. The public inquiry e-mailbox monitored by the NGA Office of Corporate Communications began receiving inquiries over the summer from university libraries around the country. The libraries once belonged to a map depository program initiated by AMS after World War II. The Army intended to place the best maps produced by their cartographers and printers at research institutions nationwide, and not only for educational purposes. Living in the long shadow of a nuclear Cold War, the possibility of attack led planners to place critical maps produced by leading government cartographers in multiple locations, for both accessibility and preservation.

The Army redesignated AMS as the U.S. Army Topographic Command in 1968, and it continued as an independent organization until 1972, when it merged into DMA. DMA continued the map depository program, which by then boasted 250 member institutions. The map depository program operated under a set of strict rules. AMS, and later DMA, would send the latest and best maps to each institution on the program list. If a library no longer wished to receive maps it could be replaced with another institution on the program list, but it had to ship all of the products received to date to the replacement institution. The collections at each site would thus remain intact, and the cross-country array of depository libraries would always make the maps available to students, faculty and national authorities.

One of the oldest maps uncovered so far is this 1929 U.S. Army Engineer Reproduction Plant coverage of San Jose, Costa Rica.

Times and technologies changed. In the emails sent to OCC over the summer, several libraries asked if they might dispose of the maps they held. They explained that students rarely used them any longer and that those frequently consulted now existed in a scanned format.

Our history staff consulted with corporate counsel and discovered that NGA could not enforce the rules set down by our predecessor agencies, AMS and DMA. As the NGA historian, I began to give permission to dispose of the maps.

In the process, we realized that each of the libraries in the program had a better historical map collection than we did in the Historical Research Center. The retention of classic maps fell to a low priority at NGA over the years, and consequently, the history staff has found very little available to collect. If we acquired the holdings from just one of these libraries, we reasoned, we could immediately have one of the best classic map collections in the National Capital area.

Opportunities like this rarely come along, and we knew we must act quickly. We wrote to one of the inquiring institutions, Bowdoin College Library in Brunswick, Maine. We asked if the college might consider shipping its depository collection to NGA rather than destroying it. We worried, because we knew our request represented considerable cost, both to prepare the collection for shipping and then to actually transport it to NCE from Maine.

Barbara Levergood, Research and Instruction librarian at Bowdoin College Library, was open to the idea and said she would present the request to Marjorie Hassen, the library’s director. After some discussion, Hassen agreed to the donation. She generously offered for Bowdoin to absorb the cost of preparing the maps for shipment if NGA would arrange for transport. Judy Montgomery, associate librarian, supervised the logistics involved with the shipment at the College, and the maps arrived at NCE Sept. 30.

As of press time, the NGA archivist has processed more than 8,000 of the maps in our new Bowdoin College Collection and discovered true treasure. Some of our precious acquisitions illustrate this article. We cannot wait to see what the other 10,500 maps have to offer! Our long-term plan is to digitize some of the best samples from the collection and post them for our customers to examine. We also plan to place a sampling on the NGA public website in the future to demonstrate the agency’s rich tradecraft heritage. These historic maps represent work by our predecessor agencies and some of the best cartographers in the federal government. Thanks to our collaborators at Bowdoin College, and the correspondence that brought us together, we captured this history just in time.

View some high-resolution samplings from this historical map collection.

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