The new David Rumsey Map Center, which opened last week at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, showcases what was once one of the world’s great private map collections—more than 150,000 maps, globes, and cartographic artifacts. The collection is especially rich with 18th and 19th century maps that illustrate the birth of scientific cartography.
The new center, located within Stanford Libraries, aims to break down the paper-digital divide. Anyone with a scholarly interest in the maps can request an original paper map and use a variety of digital displays—including a 3.6-by-2–meter touchscreen—to blow up the details or layer on other historical maps or modern satellite imagery.
The maps are the life’s passion of David Rumsey, a San Francisco, California, collector with an unusual backstory and a fierce commitment to open access. In his 20s, Rumsey co-founded a tech-savvy performance art group that lived on a commune and rejected the commodification of art. In midlife, he made a fortune as a real estate developer. Now 71, Rumsey says he’s always collected maps with the intention of giving them away. Since the early days of the Internet in the mid-1990s, he’s been scanning maps and making them freely available online, even developing some of the technology himself.
For most of his career as a collector, Rumsey focused on maps made after 1700. “You have to set limits, or you go broke and crazy at the same time,” he says. “I was interested in scientific cartography and how that becomes GIS [geographic information system] and all the digital mapping we're doing today.”
In focusing on this era, and by taking meticulous notes on the maps he collected, Rumsey created a valuable resource for studying the history of cartography, says Susan Schulten, a historian at the University of Denver who used Rumsey’s collection to research her 2012 book, Mapping the Nation.
“There’s an avalanche of information in the 19th century,” Schulten says, as governments started collecting demographic data in national censuses and measuring temperature, rainfall, and other features of the climate. For the first time in history, cartographers started mapping things that weren’t part of the physical environment—things like the prevalence of malaria and other diseases; the religious, ethnic, and educational backgrounds of the populace; the productivity of crops; and other economic variables.
“You could see entirely new patterns once you married geography to data,” Schulten says. This revolution in cartography, she argues, helped build the foundations of modern social science.
The maps below, all from Rumsey’s collection, illustrate this transition.