The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is home to many fascinating and interesting things, but if you head up to the third floor of the East Wing of the Golda Meir Library, you’ll find an area that’s home to one of the most vast, interesting collections in the world. The American Geographical Society Library is home to more than 1 million maps, atlases and globes dating back hundreds of years. This massive and incredibly important collection is free and open to the public and you have to check it out.
The American Geological Society dates back to 1851 and was formed in New York City "to support research in and diffusion of geographical and statistical information and to maintain a collection of maps, charts and instruments." But in the 1970s, the society had lost funding sources and was forced to sell their original location and downsize.
Though the society was retracting, they did not want their massive collection to go into storage, or worse, be sold off. Word spread that they were looking for a new home for their collection. In Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), which only opened in 1956, had a brand new, very large library building with room to spare. The geography department put together an application and was awarded the honor of being the collection's new home.
Today, the collection contains more than 1.3 billion pieces, from maps to globes and more. In addition, they have digitized hundreds of thousands of pieces and put them online so people around the world can access them. Digitizing the pieces is painstaking work, but it's an important part of preserving the history, especially for some of the oldest and most fragile pieces.
Without a doubt, the coolest piece in the collection is also the oldest. Dating back to 1452, this Mappa Mundi drawn by the Venetian cartographer Giovanni Leardo is one of three known in the world. It's a gorgeous, Renaissance work that you'll fall in love with just from its looks. Then you get closer and see that this "world map" only contains three continents and considers Jerusalem the center of the world. It's a truly amazing piece of history that's on display and free to visit right here in Wisconsin, any time you'd like.
The library encourages visitors, from amateur groups to students of all ages completing research. They offer their facilities for related community groups, host symposiums, create presentations for groups and more. These folks love nothing more than a reason to show off the spectacular pieces they have in their collection.
There are a number of interesting and one-of-a-kind pieces here, like a hand-drawn map by Charles Lindbergh that he used in planning his transatlantic flight. It's signed and was donated by the pilot himself.
Though many of the maps are put away in cabinets, there's a massive number of globes to check out on display all over the library, including one from the early 1600s and a 700-pound behemoth that was part of a limited run of those used by Winston Churchill and FDR, as well as their war offices, to ensure they were looking at the same information while making strategic plans during World War II.
In addition to maps and globes, there is a massive collection of geographically relevant photographs, film, slides and more. This truly is a huge compendium of information that cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The collection is a fabulously curated set of historical information in many forms that covers an immense number of subjects, from exploration to colonization . So much can be learned about ourselves and our world from how these historical maps were made.
This is a truly world-class facility that's free and open to the public on a daily basis. They also maintain a busy calendar of lectures, exhibits and events that expand upon and share the details of the many pieces of history here. That Wisconsin and UWM were able to land this very cool, very significant collection is nothing short of amazing and it would be to your detriment to not take advantage of having it so close at hand.
Address: 2311 East Hartford Avenue, Milwaukee, WI, 53211.
The American Geological Society Library is located on the campus of the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee on the 3rd floor of the East Wing of the Golda Meir Library. Learn more about the AGS Library and view their extensive digital collection online by visiting
their website or keep up to date on events using their Facebook page.
The library is open Monday – Friday, 8:00 am to 4:30 pm while school is in session. Hours change during breaks and over the summer, so check the
libraries home page for more detailed information before you go.
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