Navigating Maps at Burns Library

Maps can tell us as much about the people who made them as the places they depict. Like all texts and images, maps serve the agendas of their creators, implicitly or avowedly. Consider this map produced around 1920, during the Irish War of Independence and title The English Terror in Ireland: List of Irish Towns and Villages Ravaged by British Troops or Police During the Past Twelve Months — the author’s pro-Irish stance is easy to discern, and we can interpret the data with the proverbial grain of salt.

Map showing list of towns ravaged by British troops or police with outline of Ireland and red dots for each town named
The English Terror in Ireland: List of Irish Towns and Villages Ravaged by British Troops or Police During the Past Twelve Months, G5781.S6 E5 1920 FLAT STORAGE John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

More often, however, a map invites the viewer to contemplate a multitude of angles. This 18th-century map showing the locations of Jesuit missions in Paraguay and Brazil, for example, offers insight into the aims of the Jesuit missions, the imperial ambitions of European powers, and how these powers viewed the rights and interests of indigenous South Americans.

Section of a colored map of Paraguay, showing the location of Jesuit missions in Paraguay
Detail from Neueste Vorstellung und Beschreibung der, der [sic] Gesellschafft Iesu zugehoerigen Provinz Paraquay mit den angraenzenden Laendern, aus den Reise Geschichten und vielfaeltigen Beobachtungen der P.P. Missionarien, G5380 1732 .N48 FLAT STORAGE  John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The range of subjects found within Burns Library’s maps corresponds closely with the collecting strengths of the library generally. Maps relating to Irish history, Boston history, and the Jesuits are therefore well represented. So too are maps of Africa and the Caribbean, especially Jamaica, collected by the Jesuit missionary and anthropologist Joseph J. Williams (1875-1940) and dating from about 1630 through the mid 20th century.

Square map in Latin showing section of West African coastline, titled Guinea
This map of the coast of West Africa and the island of São Tomé dates from between 1608 and 1630 and is one of the oldest maps in Burns Library. Guinea, G2605 1608 .G8 WILLIAMS, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

To view a map at Burns Library, you will first need to find it in the library catalog. Depending on your patience for sifting through irrelevant search results, you may prefer to begin with a Google-style keyword search, or else take a more targeted approach. I recommend using the Advanced Search option, selecting Maps from the Material Type drop-down box, and searching the Subject field for the location that interests you. In the screenshot below you can see how my search for maps of Boston yielded 22 results.

Screenshot of advanced search where Any field is Boston and Material Type is Maps. 22 results found

Map showing Irish roads from Dublin to Trim by Killock

An example of a map you wouldn’t find with the material type of maps

It is important to note that by limiting the material type to maps, you are searching for maps produced as individual sheets, and for atlases wholly made up of maps. Excluded are books which may happen to include maps among its illustrations. For instance, this 18th-century book of Irish road maps, would be excluded by a search limited to Material Type Maps, on the basis that it is not a map but a book containing some maps.

While I know of no simple, targeted approach to searching the catalog for these books-that-contain-maps, one fruitful strategy is to search Any field contains map* (the asterisk will make the search engine return results for both “map” and “maps”). Combine with a Subject search for the locale of your choice (I used Vermont), and you may serendipitously discover that 1794 edition The Natural and Civil History of Vermont you didn’t know you couldn’t live without.

Screenshot of advanced search string for any field is map* and any field is vermont

–Noah Sheola, Special Collections Cataloging Librarian

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