The American Geographical Society Library: A Treasure Trove for Twenty-First-Century Geographical Scholarship

By Baruth, Christopher | The Geographical Review, July 2006 | Go to article overview

The American Geographical Society Library: A Treasure Trove for Twenty-First-Century Geographical Scholarship


Baruth, Christopher, The Geographical Review


When the Library and the Map Collection of the American Geographical Society (AGS) arrived at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) in 1978, they were combined and given the name "American Geographical Society Collection" (AGSC). Although the record is silent on this matter, it is likely that the term "library" was not used then because "AGS Library" had referred to only one of the two parts of the new entity, and the UWM Library--fighting the trend at the time toward branch libraries on campus--reserved the designation "library" for itself alone. Less than twenty-five years later, in 2002, with these issues in the distant past and then director Peter Watson-Boone wishing to have his "collections" receive their due measure of respect, the name of the AGSC was officially changed to American Geographical Society Library (AGSL). For this essay, I have elected to use the current form of the name.

In 1976, now thirty years ago, the Council of the American Geographical Society selected UWM as the new home for its distinguished Library and Map Collection, which at the time consisted of approximately 350,000 maps, 5,200 atlases, 200,000 volumes of books and periodicals, and large collections of photographs and pamphlets. Legal obstacles delayed the actual move for two years, and an additional three years were required to install the AGSL in its new surroundings--map cases, bookshelves, and card catalogs.

The grand opening on 22 October 1981, a quarter-century ago, was a gala affair, featuring a banquet, many distinguished guests who came from far and wide, including the AGS Councilors, and an address by the nation's top map librarian, John Wolter, chief of the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress (LC). It was the culmination of the efforts of many individuals in both the East and the Midwest over a sustained period: from the initial quest by the AGS in the mid-1970s to find a permanent institutional home for its treasures, through the selection process, the arduous move, the enthusiastic reception in Milwaukee, and the painstaking reassembly.

THE AGS-UWM CONNECTION

At the time of the move to Milwaukee, UWM had a relatively small but highly regarded Department of Geography. Milwaukee had hosted the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in 1975, which had attracted the largest attendance to that date, and the Milwaukee geographer Harold Rose assumed the AAG presidency in 1976. Barbara Borowiecki, a geomorphologist, led the faculty effort to bring the AGS Library and Map Collection to Milwaukee. It was she who, in the early 1970s, approached then UWM Library Director William "Bill" Roselle with the news that the AGS was looking for a home for the Library and Map Collection and raised the question, "Why not UWM?" Bill, being anything but shy and retiring, accepted the challenge and seized the opportunity to make a truly distinguished acquisition for his fledgling university library.

Although UWM has normal-school antecedents dating back to 1885, it achieved its university status only in 1956, when the Wisconsin State College-Milwaukee merged with Milwaukee's University of Wisconsin Extension Center. The library faced the challenge of transforming itself from one that was geared to undergraduate education to one that could also support graduate programs and substantial university research. The existing library building soon became outmoded, and an entirely new one was opened in 1967. Library growth continued at such a pace, however, that, by the early 1970s, expansion plans were being drawn up. Library Stage 2, a seamless addition, more than doubled the size of the building when it was put into service in 1974.

This expansion was ultimately one of the keys to the selection of UWM by the AGS: the immediate availability of 30,000 square feet of modern, climate-controlled library space, able to be transformed into a stand-alone, secured unit, and--of no small importance--also able to support the great concentrated weight of a large map collection. …

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