University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee library houses historic map collection

Posted at 10:28 PM, Jun 14, 2018
and last updated 2018-06-14 23:28:34-04

You can travel all around the world searching for the greatest, most significant historical maps of our time, but we found a really cool collection of rare maps right here on the campus of UW- Milwaukee.

It's easy to get lost inside this massive map collection, but Marcy Bidney navigates it well, "I do a have a fascinating job," she said.

Just don't ask her what she does for a living.

"It's one of the most difficult questions I have to answer," said Bidney.

That's because she oversees the second largest collection of maps in America.

The rarest and most valuable maps are secured in a room at the American Geographical Society, or AGS Library, at UWM.

Like this map.

"It tells us what we thought the early world looked like in early renaissance in 1452 the beginning of the Renaissance," said Bidney.

Did you hear that? Giovanni Leardo created that map of the world in 1452.

"There are three maps of his left in the world," said Bidney."You are looking at one of them."

Look closely, notice any familiar landmarks? "So that actually is the red sea," she said.

Another priceless medieval map that is among the library's well-insured collection.

"These maps belonged to Charles Lindbergh," said Bidney.

The navigation charts were signed and used by Lindbergh for his daring New York to Paris solo flight in 1927.

Bidney says these maps would have been on board with Lindbergh on his journey.

"And it helps him identify markers - where he should be at certain times," said TODAY'S TMJ4 reporter Charles Benson. "That is pretty cool."

Being in the right place at the right time helped UW-Milwaukee inherit the American Geographical Society gold mine collection in New York.

"At that time in the mid-1970's this collection was already at half a million items," said Bidney who has been the Curator of this collection for five years.

Maintaining that many maps became too expense and a nationwide search began for a new home.

"There were delegations that went back and forth between AGS and UWM and the AGS said yes UWM is going to be the best place and they have proven that they would be good stewards of this collection," said Bidney.

It's not just the AGS collection that thrives. The library has its own collection of old maps of Milwaukee dating back to the late 1800's known as the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps.

"They give us precise detail of the city," said Bidney.

The university has digitized more than 800 of those maps and stitched them together with the help of UWM graduates like Belle Lipton for people to use online.

You can take a current landmark like the Bucks old arena and compare it to what was there more than 100 years ago which is critical information for researchers or genealogy fans.

"If you were doing some sort of genealogical research and you wanted to see if your house was still there or maybe your ancestor," said Lipton.

Thirty-five thousand maps have been digitized. Thousands are only online for the world to discover.

But one piece of the puzzle remains a mystery about maps.

TODAY'S TMJ4 reporter Charles Benson asked Bidney who is better at directions: men or women?

"I'm not going to answer that question," said Bidney. "You know why I can't answer that question? I'm terrible."

This year marks 40 years since the AGS collection arrived at UWM.

On June 21, the library will hold a panel discussion on the role some of the AGS maps played 100 years ago in post World War One plans.