Lookers

Why the big, gorgeous Cartographica Extraordinaire shouldn't sit unopened

When a sabbatical turned into retirement, Rumsey decided that he wanted to "switch the flow" from maps coming in to maps going out. He had missed the ill-fated CD-ROM "revolution," fortunately, and was aware of digital photography and scanners. Internet delivery was "just rearing its head," and he began to electronically catalog his collection and post it on his Web site, which uses impressive software tools and up-to-the-minute technology to make it easy for anyone to view, combine, compare, study, and enjoy his maps. (My favorite gizmo is a "3D GIS Viewer" that lets you fly into a previously two-dimensional map like a missile seeking its target.)

With such a comprehensive Web site, why create a book, which is by its nature limited? To reveal a narrative, Rumsey explains. The tale in Cartographica Extraordinaire is twofold: the development of maps and mapmaking, and the progress of history that those maps both documented and defined. The first story is one of increasing sophistication and information, as flat, black-and-white, hand-drawn charts of shorelines give way to triangulations, topographic surveys, street maps, panoramas, bird's-eye views, colored lithographs, and accurate relief maps. The adventure tale begins with the detailed (and often inaccurate) globes and charts of 18th-century explorers: As Rumsey explains in the introduction, "Early maps showed viewers places that had not, in effect, existed before." Then the settlers come and the surveyors show up to plot the land, which fills with new modes of connection: roads, railroads, canal networks, mail routes, telephone and telegraph lines.

Choosing which maps to include in the book wasn't easy. Rumsey worked closely with Edith Punt, a cartographer at ESRI (a mapping software company) and an editor at its press in Redlands, which published the book. For two years they went through the online catalog and picked things that would help tell the story. They wanted the book to be scholarly, accessible, and beautiful, and in this they have succeeded. The only thing I miss is an index, though each image is thumbnailed at the end, with a reference number so you can find it online. (A time line of map development might also have been helpful, but I'm sure you can find that in other books.)

Map of San Francisco, Compiled From 
Latest Surveys & Containing All Late 
Extensions & Division of Wards, 1852.
Map of San Francisco, Compiled From Latest Surveys & Containing All Late Extensions & Division of Wards, 1852.

Rumsey is modest about his accomplishment. More than anything, he says, he's into "access." He wants to help other collectors get images of their stuff online, so that kids like his granddaughter can view primary materials without having to find them in a library and take them out one by one. He also realizes that he now has two collections -- one on paper, one online -- and he's starting to consider the future of both. He suggests that everything might go to Stanford someday.

Rumsey doesn't collect maps anymore, or even pick up the pocket maps he loved as a boy. When he wants to get directions, he goes online. Yet as he shows me his Web site, his face lights up. "Isn't this cool?" he says. And it is. As for Cartographica Extraordinaire, it rests on his coffee table, but not as mere decoration. He takes pleasure in flipping through it even now, though he co-wrote it: "I'm still getting to know this book."

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