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A World in Maps and More

A Golden Age of Cartography: Maps and Mapmakers Before 1800

Detail of Capt. Cooke's "Map of the World"

If you, for some reason, were tasked to deconstruct the James Ford Bell Library to its essential composition, how would you do it? “I think most people think of us as a place to see rare books and maps,” says Dr. Marguerite Ragnow, curator of the Bell Library. “We're just wrapping up a multi-year project to scan and make digitally available all of the maps in our books—more than 22,400 of them (umedia.lib.umn.edu).”

Ragnow is a member of the graduate faculties of History, Medieval Studies, and Early Modern Studies, and codirector of the Consortium for the Study of the Premodern World at the University. She is also president of the enticingly named Society for the History of Discoveries. Despite her personal investment in maps, she’d like people to know there’s more going on at the Bell Library.

“We support classes, workshops, and other learning experiences both at the U of MN, in the community, and at other institutions, averaging 60−70 sessions each year,” she says. “We also have extensive archival collections relating to trade in the 16th through early 19th centuries:  records and correspondence for all of the great trading companies, such as the British, Dutch, and French East India Companies, as well as the Swedish East India Company, which is always a surprise to people.”

The library was the legacy of alumnus James Ford Bell, who also was a member of the Board of Regents. Ragnow relates: “It began with a small but valuable gift of books from his personal collection and a period room, which we call the Bell Room, that was the original reading room of the library when it opened in October of 1953 in Walter Library. Mr. Bell added some items to the collection prior to his death in 1961, as did the University. Today, through private gifts and grants, as well as state funds allocated to the library for acquisitions, the collection consists of more than 40,000 rare books, manuscripts, government documents, archival collections, and other materials.”

And then there are the rare and magnificent maps which showcase the history, romance, and beauty of cartography, and trace how ideas about the world have changed over time—not just on maps, but in the imagination as well.

Ragnow's fall course, A Golden Age of Cartography: Maps and Mapmakers Before 1800, is currently full. If you are interested in taking this course in the coming year, please add your name to the fall wait list and we will contact you when another section is scheduled.

Published on October 21, 2019