History of the Osher Map Library & Smith Center for Cartographic Education

Laying the Foundations, 1986-1993

Eleanor Houston Smith donated the Smith Collection of maps, atlases, and globes to the University of Southern Maine in 1986, in memory of her late husband Lawrence M. C. Smith. The collection was physically transferred to USM in 1988. It was housed temporarily in the Gorham campus library while plans were prepared to construct an addition to the library in Bailey Hall. At the same time, the Maine Humanities Council funded a popular map exhibition that was curated by Susan Danforth, map curator of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. The Land of Norumbega: Maine in the Age of Exploration and Settlement was installed first at the Portland Museum of Art and then the Hudson Museum, University of Maine at Orono. The exhibition brought together, and for the first time on public display, maps from the Smith Collection, from the still-private Osher Collection, and from several other private and public Maine collections. In the following year, 1989, USM hired Yolanda Theunissen to a newly created library position to manage the Smith Collection.

Prompted by the example of the Smith donation, Dr. Harold L. Osher and his wife, Peggy L. Osher, together donated their collection to USM in 1989. The two gifts together constitute the founding collections, complementing each other with surprisingly little overlap. Moreover, the Oshers donated additional resources and advocated the creation of the special map library that bears their name.

The Osher Library Associates was incorporated in 1990 to support and promote the interests and continuity of the map library, the group changed their name to Friends of the Osher Map Library in 2014. Predating the eventual opening of the map library by four years, this non-profit friends group was instrumental in raising funds for its construction. The new library was planned for the first floor of the new Portland campus library, to be housed in the former Nabisco Bakery that USM acquired in 1990. (The campus library was renamed the Glickman Family Library in 2000.) USM began a three-year capital campaign to raise $1.5mil for the map library’s construction. As part of this campaign, the map library collaborated with the Portland Museum of Art on two more exhibitions featuring maps from the Smith and Osher Collections: The Art of Discovery (Fall 1992) and Maps, Myths, and Monsters (Spring 1994).

The First Map Library, 1994-2008

The Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education [OML] opened its doors on October 16th, 1994. The inaugural exhibition — Treasures of the Collection — showcased maps, atlases, globes, and scientific instruments. An accompanying conference, "Reading the World: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on Maps," was held at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. This conference included David Woodward's presentation of the inaugural Ball Lecture, founded by Barbara M. Goodbody in honor of her aunt and uncle, Edmund F. and Virginia B. Ball, and also John Noble Wilford's presentation of the inaugural Mattson-New York Times Lecture, established by the New York Times Foundation to honor their retired president, Walter E. Mattson, a graduate of Portland Junior College (one of USM's predecessor institutions).

With the opening of its facilities, OML could receive further gifts of maps. Several donations have substantially increased the size and scope of the collections. Some of these donations were celebrated through special exhibitions, such as Maps of Spain from the Enggass Collection (1998-1999). More information about these gifts is provided in the Collections page.

In 1995, USM implemented part of the Oshers' vision for OML by appointing Matthew Edney, then a young assistant professor of Geography at SUNY Binghamton, to be the library's Faculty Scholar. One of Prof. Edney's innovations was to establish the original OML website. The provision of online versions of OML's exhibitions has supplemented the printed catalogs, both providing space for more content and expanding their reach.

Highlights of the map library's activities in this second phase include:

  • hosting the three-day annual meeting, in Fall 1996, of the Society for the History of Discoveries at the Holiday Inn by the Bay;
  • participation in Opsail 2000, the Tall Ship Regatta, with a facsimile traveling exhibition loaned to half a dozen cultural organizations throughout Maine;
  • hosting the two-day annual meeting of the North East Map Organization (NEMO);
  • publication in 2001 of Reading the World, the first in the series of Occasional Publications of the Osher Library Associates, comprising the essays presented at the 1994 conference;
  • organizing in 2001 a day-long conference and half-hour TV program, Road Maps: The American Way, in conjunction with the popular exhibition of the same name, Road Maps, guest curated by Prof. Robert French
  • publication in 2003 of the second occasional publication, Don Johnson’s Charting Neptune’s Realm: From Classical Mythology to Satellite Imagery, prepared in conjunction with the exhibition, Charting Neptune's Realm;
  • co-hosting, in July 2003, with the Harvard Map Collection, the week-long International Conference on the History of Cartography, for which inter alia OML prepared its first installation of a permanent facsimile display, Heavens on Earth, in the lobby of USM’s Southworth Planetarium;
  • tenth-anniversary celebrations in 2004 with a year-long program of guest lectures keyed to the themes of the exhibition, Worldly Treasures;
  • publication in 2006 of the third occasional publication, Walter MacDougall’s Settling the Maine Wilderness: Moses Greenleaf, His Maps and His House-hold of Faith, 1777-1834; and
  • Dr. Mary Pedley, of the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, gave the inaugural David Woodward Memorial Lecture in 2006.

But OML became a victim of its own success. The growth of the collections by an order of magnitude placed great stress on the vault and other storage facilities. The many public programs could not be completely housed within the library; guest classes were especially problematic, as they often required the complete reorganization of the reading room. Plans were therefore begun after 2003 to expand the library.

After a second capital campaign, as part of USM's University Commons project, OML closed for reconstruction in December 2007. All collections, equipment, and furnishings were moved to offsite storage for the duration of construction. During the closure, OML once again worked with the Portland Museum of Art for the 2009 exhibition, The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration in American Culture, guest curated by Prof. Michael Robinson. At the same time, OML staff also prepared a new website.

OML’s expansion was undertaken as the second stage of USM’s University Commons project. The University Commons was made possible by a private fund-raising campaign, including a Kresge Challenge Grant, and a higher education bond. The overall project was designed by Koetter Kim & Associates of Boston; construction manager was Wright-Ryan Construction, Inc., of Portland, working with Dave Early and Carol Potter of USM’s facilities management.

A description, with pictures, of OML's reconstruction (September 2009) [PDF file].

The Expanded, Digitally Oriented Library, 2009-

The third phase of the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education began with the grand reopening of the newly expanded OML on October 16-17-18, 2009. The new facilities include a new 7,500 sq. ft. vault on the upper floors, featuring custom-designed, compact storage systems for atlases, globes, maps, and scientific instruments. These were funded by a $466,000 grant for Stabilizing Humanities Collections made in 2008 by the Division of Preservation and Access of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The new shelves and flat files together weigh 80,000 lbs. Specially designed cabinets in the reference room display portions of the globe collections. A multi-use educational space was created within the library’s secure envelope to handle visiting classes, public lectures, and conferences.

OML also created a digital imaging center. The imaging center has become the heart of OML’s activities in this third phase, which have centered on the public provision of digital images of OML’s collections. This impetus soon necessitated the development of a third website with mechanisms to present the digital imagery (live in February 2013).