Digitizing the ‘New World’
An intern discovers and shares the works of early modern mapmakers
The encounter in 1492 between Europeans and Amerindians initiated a centuries-long inquisitive and nautical quest by Europeans to know more about the American continent and its inhabitants. How did Europe make sense of these lands and their people? How did it fit within their cosmos?
Although there are many ways to approach these questions, I have come to realize that maps, as representations of space, can provide an understanding of the cartographers’ perspective. Therefore, when Andrea Twiss-Brooks, the Library’s Interim Co-Associate University Librarian for Research and Learning, offered me the opportunity to work with early modern maps over the summer, I knew the experience would provide insight about the depiction of the “New World” in this period. As a Graduate Global Impact Pitch Intern, I collaborated with University of Chicago Library staff members to digitize early modern maps of the Americas and make them accessible to the academic community.
The project entailed investigating maps in both the Map Collections and Special Collections, researching online databases, scanning selected maps that had not yet been digitized, enhancing the Library Catalog records for the maps, and uploading them to a repository or image server for public access. The different layers of the project require close collaboration with the Library’s experts in preservation, scanning, metadata and GIS mapping technology among others.
My research as a doctoral candidate has provided me with some background in the relationship between Spain and the Americas, but my previous experience was limited to literature and theater. Cartographic research in the Map Collection and Special Collections has allowed me to work with specialists in different areas within the Library and widen my perspective regarding maps. Willem Janszoon Blaeu’s Americae nova Tabula (1635) serves as an example. In addition to considering the political, anthropological, and topographical uses of this map of North and South America, I have come to learn that the careful light color washing not only pleases the beholder’s eye but also highlights the fine detail in the Dutch engraving technique.
While this project provides a new angle for studying the influence of the Americas in European cosmology, scanning and uploading these maps is also a refreshing way to combine the humanities and technology. Once the images are available online they can be displayed and layered in multiple ways, enabling new research endeavors. Acquainting myself with these tools is a skill that will have long-lasting value in my career as a scholar of early modern studies.