I do not enjoy dating. Does anyone really? It’s a big ‘no, thank you’ to the apps for me. So then what? Ask your friends to set you up? That is incredibly risky, particularly for the future of your friendships. I say, leave it to the professionals. They should at least find you something interesting, something different, right? And that’s when I realized that I am just down the road from the largest, most interesting dating pool in the world: the Library of Congress’ Geography and Map Division.
Did I fail to mention that I’m talking about dating maps? Apologies for the confusion. I’m looking to bring more interesting cartographic connections into my life. I can’t be trusted to not go down the path of just finding my usual type, so I’ve enlisted some help to set me up on blind dates….with maps. I’m ridiculously excited, but also, what do I wear?
A Madison of Maps
The basement of the Library of Congress’ James Madison Building houses 5.8 million mappy things. With the Cannon House Office Building just next door (and the Rayburn House Office Building next to that), power suits and power thoughts are everywhere. Walking from the metro stop to my destination, I overheard the words ‘undersecretary’ and ‘foreign affairs’ from pedestrian passersby.
I descend via elevator into the geographical treasure trove of the nation. Be cool, Candice, be cool. Research appointments here can include hosting foreign delegations and renowned scholars. And then there’s me — asking to blind date some maps. But they didn’t say no and I’m told my date is awaiting me in the conference room.
Note: I have no information prior to my date, nor do I do any research while on my date. I’m not attempting to offer scholarly, historical, or by any means, authoritative insights. I’m just a gal, standing in front of a map, asking to have some nerdy fun.
Image 1: My date (the manila folder on the near side of the table) awaits me in the conference room. All images in this article by Candice Luebbering.
Before I even see my date, I know it is something different. Housed within a large manila folder, it isn’t flat. Is this an atlas, a raised relief map? Not only do I not know my date’s age, origin, or theme, I realize I don’t even know its format. I slowly pull back the folder, unveiling a stack of map sheets covered in mylar. The top sheet features part heavenly art scene, part oblique cityscape view, part physical map with hills and mountains — all in black ink on delightfully aged paper. What IS my date?
Image 2: Corner view of my date – a stack of mylar-covered map sheets.
There are a few ‘-berg’ toponyms in the bottom right corner, so between those and the style of the angels (not unlike the religious art I’ve seen growing up in the Catholic Church), I’m guessing my date is European. We’re probably going to have a language barrier, so even small talk might be challenging. I am feeling substantially less cultured and sophisticated than my companion, as I shove my sunshine-colored backpack under the table and wonder if I should have worn a cardigan or something.
Image 3: Snippet of the angels gathered on the first map sheet.
Image 4: The hint of a map in the bottom corner of the first map sheet.
We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Table
I spot a clue. The edges are labeled with numerical sections. Do these sheets piece together? I do love a good puzzle! But just how large of a puzzle? I didn’t think to bring a ruler to my date – that seemed both rude and to imply a shallow interest in physical appearance over personality.
The second section is much more identifiably mappy, but still has huge text colliding with a highly detailed, crosshatched sketch cascading from the top corner. It’s like a map vs. art battle. Who will dominate to capture your attention?
Image 5: Example of the map vs. art visual battle for the viewer’s attention.
I eventually discover that the map is five sections wide by five sections tall and would cover most of this conference table — one that could seat maybe 12 people for an untraditional but totally count-me-in Thanksgiving dinner in the Library of Congress basement.
Image 6: One full row of the map.
I recognize the large text as Latin but that’s as far as my high school class memory can help. The town names seem German-esque (says someone with German heritage but zero grasp on the language except for appreciation of their terms for extremely specific human conditions). I do spy a Dresden, but later also run into Prague.
The top right corner of this mega map amps up the artwork activity. There is an eagle (or other bird of prey — I am no ornithologist) wearing a crown and grasping perhaps a coat of arms in its talons. But there are also people pouring vessels of maybe water that are labeled with names of…..rivers, places?
Image 7: Crown-wearing, shield-carrying bird of prey swooping in on the top right corner of the map.
Image 8: An array of figures with labeled vessels of water? I have no idea.
I’m starting to feel a real age gap between myself and my date. I mean, I don’t mind dating older, but how much older are we talking?
Hills, Structures, And...Turtles!
It is tricky to take photos given the protective covering on the map sections and the fluorescent tube lighting above. You can only capture portions before encountering a glare, but 1) I’m thrilled to be able to handle this map and, 2) the way the light bounces necessitates movement to try to see the map between reflections. The required sitting/standing/leaning/angling makes
this map reading a truly physical activity and, once I sort out the dance, the details are delightful.
I love, love, love hand drawn hillshades and topographic features. That’s one of my usual types. My date features varying densities of elevated earth depictions. It’s like my LOC matchmaker really knows me!
Image 9: An assortment of hand drawn topography depictions.
Structures feature prominently on this date, but not just one standard symbol. They are terrifically detailed, varying in architectural features and complexity. Do these reflect the actual structures, or do they indicate size or importance? Some seem religious and others have crowns hovering next to them —indicating a royal connection?
Image10: Examples of the different building symbology featured on the map.
Perhaps this map was for monitoring, celebrating, and/or displaying some ruler’s religious and/or political domain. It looks like the different structure symbols repeat and have some sort of systematic meaning, but I can’t focus as I’m too distracted by… the Turtles!
There aren’t actually turtles on the map, but the cities’ overhead depiction with what appear to be circular, fortifying walls with internal subsections immediately read as turtle shells to me. And once I see turtles, I can’t UNSEE turtles. (There’s Louban the turtle, and Glatz the turtle…) I enjoy spotting unique shells across the landscape and envision a fantastical era of moats, drawbridges, and elaborate city gates. Please do forgive my propensity for all things turtle and don’t let it take away from the grandeur of this map.
Image11: Examples of the turtle-shell-like appearance of walled cities on the map.
All is Revealed
My date is most definitely more map than art. I was simply thrown by the initial revealing of its art-dominant top edge — a great reminder that you don’t see or know everything at first, of any thing or anyone. I spent so much time trying to size up my date when I was only seeing 4% of it.
The title and legend aren’t revealed until the very last sheet. It’s a bit of a power move and strategic withholding of key information (of course, I punned) on the part of my date, but it did keep that sense of mystery until the very end.
Image12: Image of the map title.
Wait a minute, I have Google translate! I shamelessly bust out my device of sorcery (as I presume my date would describe it) to get a rough translation: “Geographical Map of the Kingdom of Bohemia divided into 12 circles.” I knew “duodecim” looked familiar!
A dual Latin/German legend breaks down the symbology, and it is wonderfully detailed. The different structures indicate things like the palaces of nobles and whether a village had a castle, a temple, or, alas, both! The map has so much more than I noticed, probably because I was distracted by the turtles (which are designations for both royal and common cities surrounded by walls). There are mines noted by resource type, hermitages, and even glass factories.
Image 13: Portions of the map legend.
Thinking of the sheer size, delicate artwork, detailed terrain and towns, this was an expensive map. What care and work went into this! What cost for whomever commissioned it! What an important resource this must have been. I thank this elder Bohemian (as in the actual Bohemia, not a lifestyle commentary) and carefully stack it away for its return to the vault. Once outside I finally consult my matchmaker’s (a.k.a. LOC staff member’s) notes to learn the real deal about my date.
I wonder what regal, political, religious, and/or scholarly audiences this map has had over history before my visit today. I am quite humbled by this thought and that this is but <0.0001% of the cartographic treasures amassed here.
A sincere thank you to the staff of the Geography & Map Division of the Library of Congress for facilitating my date. If you can’t visit in person, please take note of the vast (and ever increasing) online map collections available through their tireless efforts to catalog, digitize, and make map wonders available to all. Also check out the Geoinspirations episode interviewing the Division Chief.
Remember, blind dates don’t have to bad. Just consult your local (map)matchmaking professional!