Oh the Places You'll Go: 38,000 Historical Maps to Explore at New Online Library

The Digital Public Library of America announces the addition of a vast treasure trove of maps.
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A map from Joseph and James Churchman's 1833 volume "Rudiments of National Knowledge, Presented To The Youth Of The United States, And To Enquiring Foreigners" (David Rumsey/DPLA)

More than three decades ago, David Rumsey began building a map collection. By the mid-90s he had thousands and thousands of maps to call his own -- and his alone. He wanted to share them with the public.

He could have donated them to the Library of Congress, but Rumsey had even bigger ideas: the Internet. "With (some) institutions, the access you can get is not nearly as much as the Internet might provide," Rumsey told Wired more than a decade ago. "I realized I could reach a much larger audience with the Internet."

Bit by bit, Rumsey digitized his collection -- up to 38,000 maps and other items -- along the way developing software that made it easier for people to explore the maps and 3D objects such as globes online. Today, the Digital Public Library of America announced that Rumsey's collection would now be available through the DPLA portal, placing the maps into the deeper and broader context of the DPLA's other holdings.

"I am very excited to have my digital library of historical maps added to the DPLA," Rumsey was quoted as saying in a DPLA press release. "Maps tell stories that complement texts, images, and other resources found in the growing DPLA library."

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To see exactly what this means in context, click on any one of the 38,142 results that come from a search for "David Rumsey." Once you've clicked through to, say, this 1838 globe, you'll notice a little module on the right (I've put a screenshot of it here as well) that invites you to "view on timeline." Click there and you'll arrive at a page with all of the DPLA's other materials from that year.

In addition, Rumsey's maps will now be available through the DPLA's API, meaning people who are creating location-based apps will be able to tap into the historical resources of the collection.

The DPLA, as with much of its "holdings," doesn't actually hold anything at all -- rather, they use Rumsey's metadata to make it all searchable and accessible through DP.LA, but when it comes time to look at an object up close, you'll be linked over the David Rumsey's own site. It's not about what the DPLA has so much as how it presents and connects what is already out there. As DPLA executive director Dan Cohen told me earlier this month, "By bringing them together, I think we're also in a sense making those collections much more usable. When people come to the website, first of all, they'll be able to find a lot of content that exists out in smaller archives and collections much more easily. They won't have to go to hundreds or thousands of websites to find this amazing, unique scanned content from America's heritage and, indeed, from the world's."

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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