Old maps are more than just geographical information presented in an appealing visual format – antique maps tell us about changes in the landscape, for sure, but they also inform us about the human past. After all, maps are made by people, produced within specific cultural frameworks.
A new study of a 9,000-year old mural in the Turkish archaeological site Çatalhöyük argues that it is, in fact, the world's oldest map, and that it shows an eruption of the nearby volcano Hasan Dağı in progress. (The study offers evidence that Hasan Dağı did actually erupt around the time that the mural was created.) If news of this development has you thinking about old and antique maps, you're in luck! Multnomah County Library has a wide array of books about the history of maps, many with beautiful and thought-provoking reproductions and illustrations. Take a look at the reading list below for a few of my personal favorites.
Remember, also, that Multnomah County Library actually owns a lot of maps! Most of the library's oldest maps are kept at Central Library, either in the map collection in the Literature & History room (on the third floor), or in the John Wilson Special Collections. Most older maps, are of course, reference items that cannot be checked out of the library – but there's plenty of room to enjoy them at Central Library! Here are a few gems:
One of my favorite old maps in the library's collection is the 1896 Hand Atlas über alle Theile der Erde und über das Weltgebäude. That's a big, long German title, and indeed, the entire atlas is in German! But maps are visual things, and even if the place names are in an unfamiliar language, this world atlas is both useful and beautiful – particularly if you're interested in seeing a snapshot of national borders in the 1890s. The image here is from the very beginning of the atlas, in the section of maps of heavenly bodies. This one, I'm sure you can see, is of the moon.
Moving forward a bit in time, here's a snippet of one of the property ownership maps in the Metsker Atlas of Clatsop County – it's sheet 27 of the 1930 atlas, showing the town of Seaside. The library has a large collection of atlases published by the Metsker Co., covering all of Oregon's 36 counties (plus a few Metsker atlases of Washington counties that are near the Portland area). Most of the Metsker atlases were published from the 1920s to the 1970s. They contain lovely, detailed maps showing street names and subdivision names -- often this is interesting, particularly when you look at an older map and can see big changes like the neighborhoods that were present before a freeway was built, or farm and forest land where there is now an urban area. Larger parcels of land are marked with the owner's name too, which can be most illuminating.
One great place to look for charming little maps is in the pages of now-out-of-date travel guidebooks, and the library has plenty of examples! The cutie to the left shows the streetcar lines, trolley car lines ("trolley car" is an old term for an electric bus), and motor coaches (early 20th century-speak for a gasoline- or diesel-powered bus) in downtown Portland, circa 1944. The map is from Byington's New Nonpareil Guide to Portland.
But the library's collection is not limited to maps showing landforms, details for tourists, and property information. For a different sort of map entirely, take a peek at the lovely Mapbook of English Literature, an elegantly-drawn collection of maps illustrating important literary-geographical connections. The section of the London map at right, which features literary facts from 1800-1900, shows details from the world of fiction: "The Quips (Dickens's Old Curiosity Shop, 1840-41) lived here;" and biographical bits and pieces about English authors: "Keats was a student here (1815-16) Guy's Hospital."
Do you have a favorite map, or a favorite book about maps? Share them!
And of course, if you've got a question about maps, the library's collection about maps, or anything else, there's a friendly librarian who'd love to help you! Just get in touch using Ask the Libarian, or ask at the information desk the next time you're at the library.