July 14, 2016

Starting from Scratch: Performing an Inventory of the Uncatalogued Rolled Map Collection

Daisy Dyrdahl-Roberts, Summer Intern, Montana Historical Society Research Center

The Montana Historical Society has a sizeable collection of uncatalogued rolled maps. Some of these maps have been part of the collection for many years, yet they have remained largely undiscovered and unused. My summer internship has given me the chance to make this rolled map collection more accessible. Why haven’t they been added to the library’s catalog? The two biggest obstacles to getting these maps catalogued are housing and the lack of a comprehensive inventory.

Lacking space for proper housing, the rolled maps have generally been made to fit wherever there is room. When shelves become too full they are then stored in the next best place. Related maps, copies, and map series are not always together, making it difficult to know if specific maps were not acquired or have been separated. Often, items from a single acquisition have been kept together on the shelves—even if the items are unrelated to each other beyond the acquisition source (all the various maps put out by a turn-of-the-century engineering firm over 15 years), or contain non-map items (examples include charts, graphs, architectural drawings, and even payroll sheets). This is best practice for archival materials, but generally not done for published materials.

Maps in Additional Map Room Locations
Rolled Maps on Map Room Shelves

However, the lack of a comprehensive inventory has been the more difficult problem for discovery and use. Several attempts at creating an inventory have been made; from handwritten lists on legal pads to Excel spreadsheets. However, inventories were usually partial inventories rather than a comprehensive inventory of the entire collection. In fact, I have identified rolled maps that have not been included on an inventory at all.

The existing inventories were performed by different people at different times with varying levels of training using all kinds of methods; which basically means there is inconsistency to the amount or types of information available in the inventories. Things like titles and dimensions are incorrect or missing altogether on some of the inventories. In fact, map dimensions are probably the most inconsistent piece of information from inventory to inventory; sometime they are completely missing, sometime they are recorded in centimeters, sometimes in inches, sometimes they are recorded as h x w, and other times as w x h. In a memorable run of highway maps they were measured in inches one direction and feet in the other (with absolutely no notation of that fact anywhere), and for some the recorded dimensions were obviously rough estimates (apparently, “30’ ” can mean anything between 20’ and 50’).

For me, the most challenging aspect of building a comprehensive inventory has been reconciling the different existing inventories with my own findings. There was no system in place to accomplish that, so I had to let a system develop organically through trial and error; and, in fact, I’m still working on that and probably will be for a while. After all, there are a lot of maps.