The American Geographical Society Library – Milwaukee, Wisconsin - Atlas Obscura

The American Geographical Society Library

Literally a million fascinating cartographic artifacts are held in this sprawling university collection.  


Within the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is a geographer’s treasure trove: over a million artifacts from the American Geographical Society, one of the most incredible collections of maps, atlases and globes to be found anywhere in America.

It’s an inconspicuous home for such a storied collection: this is the final resting place of the library of the illustrious American Geographical Society. Once a powerhouse of exploratory resources, the organization had fallen on hard times in the late 1970s. The private donations and corporate funding on which they had been reliant, had been reduced to a trickle, and the Society was forced to sell its imposing neo-classical headquarters in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. Eventually downsizing to a small rental office in Brooklyn, the Society was adamant that its unparalleled collection should be kept intact. Resisting the temptation to sell off its valuable archive, including the remarkable signed AGS Fliers and Explorers Globe, they undertook a nationwide search for a suitable home.

Faculty members of the geography department at UWM heard what was happening and applied. The University itself was barely 20 years old, but had a brand new library building large enough to house the entire collection. The New York States Attorney office wasn’t happy that the rich cultural heritage and treasures of the Society would be leaving the State of New York, but with no other viable option to take the collection as a whole, the decision was taken to send the collection to Wisconsin in 1978.

Entering the library, the first thing that strikes you is the amount of globes—there are hundreds of globes on permanent display, including one dating as early as 1613. The largest globe is a rare example of the giant “President’s Globe.” Made during World War II by the Office of Strategic Services (the OSS was the predecessor of the CIA), the 50 inch diameter globes were made for President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Weighing over 700 pounds, and thought to be the most detailed and accurate globes made up to that point, the intent was that FDR and Churchill would have an identical reference source as they plotted their war plans. Roosevelt kept the giant globe next to his desk in the Oval office, and now it can be found in his former home in Hyde Park. The globe on display in the AGS library was one of 12-15 originally made by Weber Costello out of Chicago. Others were constructed for the Air Force and the Office of War Information.

On the wall of the “rare room,” past shelves of vellum bound atlases from the 17th century is a map of the world with a single arched line stretching over the Atlantic. Inscribed, “used in laying out great circle course for New York to Paris flight” and initialed C.A.L., it is Charles Lindbergh’s actual hand drawn navigation map from his record flight in 1927. It was donated to the AGS by Lindbergh himself.

Next to it is a series of maps depicting what we now know as New Zealand and Australia. Dated 1770, they are signed “Lieut. J. Cook, Commander of His Majesty’s Bark the Endeavour.” These are the actual maps, drawn by his own hand, from when Captain Cook explored and mapped the previously uncharted east coast of Australia. Cook was such a first class cartographer that his maps still hold up today for their accuracy.

Today the collection stands at roughly 500,000 maps, 200 globes and 12,000 atlases.
 There are over 600,000 pictures in the media collection, nitrate negatives and glass plates many of which don’t exist anywhere else. They record countless expeditions undertaken by the Society, as well as important events in world history and geographical discoveries. Rows upon rows of shelves are filled with rare travelogues from the golden age of Victorian exploration, titles such as “The Wild Tribes of the Soudan,” “The Unknown Horn of Africa,” and “The Cave Dwellers of Southern Tunisia.”

The oldest map in the collection dates from 1452. One of only three surviving Mappa Mundi drawn by the Venetian cartographer Giovanni Leardo, it is considered one of the finest example of Renaissance map making, and the only one to be found in America. It is an extraordinary vision of how our world was viewed at the time, with Jerusalem as the epicenter, the Mediterranean Sea running north to south, and featuring the only three known continents, Asia, Europe and Africa.

All this and more is waiting to be discovered in the collection. It is just waiting for intrepid explorers to dig it up. 

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