No Geography Department? No Problem: The Map Collection at Cornell University Library and the Humanities

No Geography Department? No Problem: The Map Collection at Cornell University Library and the Humanities

Boris Michev, Olin & Uris Libraries, Cornell University | bm19@cornell.edu

Michev 2012 Abstract

INTRODUCTION

When I was giving a Map Collection tour to the parents of first-year students last year, someone observed, “So, you have more than 350,000 maps, atlases, journals, and books, and no Geography Department?! Who then uses the collection?” The quick, and quite true, answer would be, people are “doing geography” all over the Cornell University campus—researching historical and present boundaries, examining linguistic groupings, imagining how a particular place looked 100 years ago, etc.

All this makes the physical collection relevant but, with the absence of a “normal” primary audience, we try to provide support to a broader audience primarily in the humanities. In this context, the new exhibits we mount every six months in the lobby in front of the Maps Room serve two purposes: (1) increasing the visibility of the Map Collection, including advertising the opportunities that maps and mapping software present; and (2) engaging in the cultural discourse at the University, local, national, or even world level. For instance, several years ago Cornell launched its New Student Reading Project, as part of which incoming freshmen read and engage in year-long discussions of a particular book. This creates a sense of community and academic integration. Several times, where the content allowed us, we prepared a map exhibit in support of the project; for example, in 2009, we mapped John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The exhibit completed our involvement in the project and the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the publication of the novel.

THE GRAPES OF WRATH

When we learned that the incoming freshman class Reading Project was The Grapes of Wrath, we asked ourselves, why not map it? After all, the book is an extraordinary account of a major upheaval and transition in the way of life of large groups of people in America, caused by both environmental and social factors. We can read it from multiple perspectives—as literature, as a sociological or political study, or as an economic report on the poverty of the 1930s. We can also listen to the music it contains, or view the art that it inspired. And we can look at its geography, since there is a natural link between literature and geography. Geography has a big influence in shaping any society. Literature, like all art, is ultimately a reflection and illustration of the landscape that produced it. Virtually every story has a setting that can be expressed in geographical terms. Therefore, as part of the discussions within the Reading Project, in July 2009 we published an interactive online map (Figure 1) that drew some excited reviews from visitors on our blog page, like the one by Aimee Noel, Dayton, OH, on August 7, 2009: “This will be an extremely helpful site to use in my classroom. Thank you for the time and attention to detail that you are investing into this project.”

Figure 1. A screen shot of the interactive online Grapes of Wrath map. The colored
layer shapes show the different levels of wind erosion resulting from the Dust Bowl.

Figure 1. A screen shot of the interactive online Grapes of Wrath map. The colored layer shapes show the different levels of wind erosion resulting from the Dust Bowl.

Encouraged by the positive response, we decided to continue our efforts and prepare a map exhibit aimed at helping to visualize the events and places in this extraordinarily rich account of a major transition and upheaval in the way of life for large groups of people in America, and showing the influence of physical, geographic space on human behavior and cultural development—at the same time demonstrating the possibilities that GIS affords us.

GIS as a tool faces significant obstacles at the outset. The basic problem is that GIS was not developed for the humanities; it emerged as a tool of the environmental sciences and was quickly accepted in the corporate world. Its uptake in the academy is much slower. On the other hand, the ability of GIS to integrate data from different formats by virtue of their shared geography (Bodenhamer et al. 2010, viii-ix) has attracted the interest of historians, archaeologists, linguists, and many other humanists. GIS can be applied in answering a variety of historical and cultural questions; e.g., did the Dust Bowl of the 1930s result from over-farming the land, or was it primarily the consequence of long term environmental changes; how did the internal migration of the 1930s–1940s change the demographics of the Great Plains; why were the migrant camps in California concentrated where they were; and so on.

We considered two methods of realizing our goal: (1) the above-mentioned interactive Internet map, and (2) a physical exhibit combining both maps prepared by using the mapping software ArcGIS and an explanatory text. We believed that, by using graphics together with text, we would enhance students’ understanding. The expectation was based on the results of various studies showing that when users view a map prior to reading a related text, they are able to more accurately recall more information from both the map and the text (Verdi and Kulhavy 2002, 43).

THE GRAPES OF WRATH: GOOGLE MAPS

Of course, ours was not the first attempt to map a literary work. For instance, Jerome Burg, founder of the Google Lit Trips Project, has mapped the locations in The Grapes of Wrath and provides some additional information in the placemark balloons.

For our project, we did a similar thing—we mapped the Joads’ journey and geocoded all the places mentioned in the book together with an excerpt from the novel that mentions the particular place. We did not stop here, however. As we all know, Steinbeck immortalized Route 66, the Mother Road, as a symbol of the quest for better life. Therefore, we felt that Route 66 must exist on our map. And, of course, we wanted to show the driving force of the events happening in the novel—the ecological disaster known as The Dust Bowl. It seems that we ultimately succeeded—in addition to the comments in the blog, an anonymous viewer posted the following comment in the body of the map: “You…saved my life and my grade…”

THE GRAPES OF WRATH: EXHIBIT

With the permanent exhibit in the display case in front of the Map Room in Olin Library, we had a slightly different goal. We wanted to show the real physical/geographic context and environment. We did map the Joads’ itinerary on Historic Route 66 (or “The Mother Road”), along which the migrants travelled to California; however, we put the emphasis on the Dust Bowl extent, the migrants’ destinations, and the efforts of the federal administration to accommodate them. The maps in the exhibit came in different formats. Most of the materials shown were illustrations in books. We also showed, with their permission, a map from the National Agricultural Library special collections. The rest of the maps were original creations using GIS software based on data harvested in various sources (Figures 2, 3, 4, and 5).

Figure 2. Development of California migrant
camps to 1941.

Figure 2. Development of California migrant camps to 1941.

Figure 3. Map of John Steinbeck’s travels in
California during the fall of 1937 in preparation
for The Grapes of Wrath.

Figure 3. Map of John Steinbeck’s travels in California during the fall of 1937 in preparation for The Grapes of Wrath.

Figure 4. Extent and intensity of the dust storms over the Southwestern plains in 1936

Figure 4. Extent and intensity of the dust storms over the Southwestern plains in 1936.

Figure 5. Percentage of normal precipitation between September 1934 and February
1935. The light, at best, rainfall and the careless cultivation and overgrazing depleted
the subsoil moisture and greatly contributed to the dust storms of the 1930s

Figure 5. Percentage of normal precipitation between September 1934 and February 1935. The light, at best, rainfall and the careless cultivation and overgrazing depleted the subsoil moisture and greatly contributed to the dust storms of the 1930s.

THE 50TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE OLIN LIBRARY

2011 marked the 50th anniversary of the largest library on the Cornell University’s Ithaca, New York, campus. The John M. Olin Library was built in 1961. It was the first library in the country to be purposely built as a research facility. Various events celebrated the anniversary, including an exhibition on display in Olin and Uris Libraries and also online. It traced Olin’s history through photographs, drawings and artifacts, and examined how Olin had kept pace with evolving research needs.

This time, we took a different approach in preparing the map exhibit. We tried to show what the world looked like in 1961 by placing this concrete local event in a global geopolitical context, at the same time demonstrating the opportunities the various mapping software presents to visualize our experiences.

Arguably the most important event of the year was the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy (Figure 6). The inaugural address was the fourthshortest in US history and one of the most crucial. It took place at the front steps of the US Capitol building and addressed the most critical issues of the time. 1961 also saw the emergence of perhaps the world’s greatest symbol of division in the Berlin Wall. On April 12, a human being reached outer space for the first time. Despite the stated intentions, the arms race continued, leading to several serious nuclear accidents (Figure 7). Within the US, challenges to racial segregation gathered strength as the civil rights movement picked up speed. All of these events became part of the exhibit.

Figure 6. A poster of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. The red star within the
Google Earth image of the US Capitol indicates the location of the ceremony

Figure 6. A poster of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. The red star within the Google Earth image of the US Capitol indicates the location of the ceremony.

Figure 7. A poster of several nuclear disasters of 1961, including the
detonation by the USSR of the AN-602 hydrogen bomb, the most powerful
nuclear weapon in history.

Figure 7. A poster of several nuclear disasters of 1961, including the detonation by the USSR of the AN-602 hydrogen bomb, the most powerful nuclear weapon in history.

Our plans for map exhibits continue into the future. 2012 marks the 500th anniversary of the death of Amerigo Vespucci and, in March, a new exhibit will appear, “America or Columbia: 500 Years of Controversy,” which will try to present the opposing points of view and perhaps take a side itself.

CONCLUSION

The regular exhibits presented by the Map Unit of Olin & Uris Libraries are an important contributing factor to the increased visibility of the unit, the collection we curate, and the various projects we either participate in or have been commissioned to perform. Our collaboration with various departments at Cornell University have sharply increased over the past several years. For instance, Nij Tontisirin, student-assistant and the unit’s GIS specialist, created the original maps for the 2011 book Islam: A Short Guide to the Faith, by Prof. Shawkat Toorawa, Near Eastern Studies. She provided the maps and GIS analysis for Prof. Jon Parmenter’s (History) 2010 book The Edge of the Woods: Iroquia, 1534-1701, as well as the maps for Prof. Sandra Greene’s (History) 2011 book West African Narratives of Slavery: Texts from Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Ghana. We also produced the maps for the Matthew Robar’s 2010 senior honors thesis, “All Politics Is Local: Even the Politics of War in the Government Department.” Currently, we are working with Prof. Thomas Pepinsky, Government, on his long-term project combining data from the 1930 Dutch census of Indonesia (Volkstelling 1930) with contemporary data on governance at the district level.

Thus, we hope to continue to increase the use and relevance of our map collection for both the humanities and the entire Cornell community.

REFERENCES

Bodenhamer, David J., John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris. 2010. The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Burg, Jerome. 2006. “The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck” (map). Accessed on January 18, 2011. http://www.googlelittrips.com/GoogleLit/9-12/Entries/2006/11/1_The_Grapes_of_Wrath_by_John_Steinbeck.html

Cornell University. “New Student Reading Project.” Accessed January 18, 2012. http://blogs.cornell.edu/reading/.

Cornell University Library. 2009. “The Grapes of Wrath: An Interactive Online map.” Accessed January 18, 2012. http://maps.google.com/maps/ms?hl=en&ie=UTF8&msa=0&msid=102659333711930112235.00046f4e4cdc70ac33e16&ll=38.134557,-96.569824&spn=7.756811,14.084473&z=6.

Verdi, Michael P. and Raymond W Kulhavy. 2002. “Learning With Maps and Texts: An Overview.” Educational Psychology Review 14: 27-46.

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