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Catalogs and Cartography in your County Historical Society

By Spencer Cook, LCHS intern, University of Idaho History student


Hi, my name is Spencer Cook. I’m a student at University of Idaho dual majoring in History and Geography. I spent this past Fall semester as an intern at the Latah County Historical Society, working with the Society’s vast map collection. Allow me to set the scene…

A low-ceilinged basement room lit with fluorescent lights. A series of makeshift paperweights. Dozens upon dozens of long, thin cardboard boxes. Contained within each one: maps of various origins and purposes, which have each found their way to the Latah County Historical Society by some means or another. My job was to document these boxes’ contents, and make them easily accessible via the LCHS’s digital catalog.

The LCHS map collection

A trio of boxes under one arm, notebook in the other, I make my way to the basement room that I made my workstation. The first box is opened: this one only has one map in it. I unroll it and weight it down as I take a photo with my phone—not quite happy with it, I take a second one. This one’s better. I upload it to the catalog. I jot down in my notebook that the map is in good condition, but that the box it’s in is too large. Putting it back in its box, I prepare for the next one.

Potlatch Logging Camps 1904-1986

I grab the second box; this one feels heavier. As I open it, a thick cylinder of maps, a veritable rolling pin caked in cartography, emerges. Wrapped upon one another like layers of an onion, I painstakingly unfurl map after map. Some large, some small, some in good condition, others less so. When I’m done, I count them, and then I count them again… eighteen in total. Now the fun starts.

Submitting a single picture isn’t quite sufficient in this case. No, each map in this box needs its own picture; what’s more, I need to assign an ID to each one, so they can be told apart. I do as I did before: weight down the map, take a good picture, upload it. Once that’s done, I pencil the letter A onto the back of the map. Then, I repeat with the next map from the box—and I keep repeating until I hit the letter R. At last, I reroll the map-onion, and slide it carefully back into its box. I make a note that this box is just the right size for its contents, but that some of its maps are worse for wear.

Map of Moscow Sewers, 1904

I open the last of the boxes I brought down with me. The wizened scroll which I extract hangs in tatters; a piece flakes off it, despite my attempts at a careful withdrawal. I place it on the table, and briefly consider unrolling it to take a picture, before eyeing its many existing tears with suspicion and deciding otherwise. I slip it back into its box with great care. “Poor condition,” I write in my notebook, “Did not unroll.”

I sling the three boxes back under my arm, and head back upstairs. It’s time for the next batch.

In the course of this internship, I learned many things about managing a museum collection: How should an item be filed in the museum’s catalog? What should be done with duplicate items, or items that are badly damaged? When may it be appropriate to send something to another Historical Society elsewhere? Overall, I’ve highly valued the time I’ve spent working here at the LCHS.

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