Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sources for Researchers: The World Described

Maps tell us a great deal more than just facts about geography.  They give us insights into culture, politics, and anthropology.  When the map is old, we learn about history, as well. 
In the rare book room at the State Library of Ohio there is an atlas - a collection of maps - published in 1736 called The world described, or, A new and correct sett of maps [cartographic material] : shewing the kingdoms and states in all the known parts of the earth, with the principal cities, and most considerable towns in the world Herman Moll, geographer .  It contains thirty-one hand-colored maps which are "correct" for the date of publication, including continental maps as well as maps of nations and their 18th century boundaries.

The atlas includes illustrations of local wildlife, like that of the industrious beavers of Canada, below.  The text says that the beavers are "making Dams to stop [the] course of a Rivulet in order to form a great Lake, about which they build their Habitations."   It goes on to describe the means by which beavers - some of which look remarkably like lions in the illustration below - build their dams "with great order and wonderfull [sic] Dexterity." 


As suggested above, many of the maps in the atlas are not entirely correct.  Take, for example, the map of North America (below).  Colonies of England, territories of Spain and France, are represented as accurately as cartologist Herman Moll could make them, of course, but because the regions had not been explored or mapped by Europeans, they are represented based on Moll's best guesses.

One of my duties at the State Library of Ohio is to give tours of our rare book room, something I have done for groups of all ages.  Adult visitors are charmed by the atlas and enjoy the hand-tinting of borders and the illustrations of points of cultural interest.  On the occasion that my visitors are children, however, the lesson is quite different.  I typically bring the atlas to a table and invite the children to find Ohio on the North America map.  Of course, they are unable to do so, although they are often able to approximate its location based on other landmarks.  At this point, I ask them about whether the map is "wrong."  Of course it is!  But, based on what Europeans knew at the time, it was correct in 1732.  I guide them to the realization that there is little that we know to be completely correct; that every "fact" we know can be found to be incorrect with additional pieces of information.
Sadly, the State Library's copy of the atlas is in what can only be described as rough shape. The spine has completely come apart, most of the maps have detached from what remains of the binding, and the paper has broken at fold points. Fortunately, the New York Public Library has digitized the atlas and made it available online. It is entirely worth viewing as a work of art...or you can also just try to find Ohio.


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