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Baja California Transportation map from 1916.

Baja California Transportation map from 1916.

Mapping Your World

By Margaret Dykens, Director, Research Library

What is it about maps that fascinates and intrigues us? Is it the way that they attempt the impossible—to translate a multi-dimensional world into a flat surface? Sometimes it is simply the information conveyed, or the fact that they show things in a very delimited and precise fashion, and other times just the colors, the lines, the contours, the aesthetic appeal of the representation are enough to appeal to the eye. Anyone who knows me is aware that I have no sense of direction and could not find my way out of the proverbial paper bag, but like many other people, I love looking at maps, especially old ones.

The map collection of the San Diego Natural History Museum Research Library has some gems that would also intrigue you. There is the 1865 map of the Butterfield Stage Coach Route, which is fun to look at not only because of the place names and localities portrayed, but also because of the neatly printed annotations added here and there by a traveler along the route— “Cheyennes” and “buffaloes” for example. This map, like many others, was mounted on linen backing and folded so it could fit into a pocket. When I imagine that pocket, I see it as the innermost pocket of a worn, dusty, and stained leather coat that had seen many miles along the route. Just reading those notations makes scenes from a classic Western movie begin to roll in my mind’s eye. It is easy to imagine all the adventures and misadventures that some wanderer, whose name will forever be unknown to us, encountered during that trip from Kansas City to Denver so many years ago.

Or how about the map of Baja California from 1916, showing railroad routes and shipping routes, not to mention the beautiful map showing Fairmount Park in downtown Philadelphia in 1897! There is a spectacular, very large, colorful geologic map of New York from 1842, showing the terminal moraine and other geologic features. Imagine the painstaking and time-intensive work involved not only in surveying and ascertaining the necessary facts to be shown, but then rendering it all in precise detail. Often these maps were colored by hand, and the high standards of the cartographer are evident in the final product.

Besides the visual appeal of these maps meticulously created more than a hundred years ago, these objects are compelling to us because of the stories they contain. Those stories undoubtedly reveal a lot about the people who owned them—people who used the map to guide their way, perhaps to find the next waterhole, to find a new homestead, to plan a battle, to visit their sweetheart, or to find a mine and strike it rich. Who knows what stories they tell? In an era of Google Earth and a time when every square foot of land on Earth can be designated by exact longitude and latitude, it is intriguing to gaze at these documents and be transported back to a time when the world still had unknown and unmapped places, and adventures were waiting around the next bend in the road.

Margaret Dykens is Director of the Museum’s Research Library. The library is open to the public by appointment; please call 619.255.0225 or email

Cedros Island Century Plant
Bob Cherry displays a map in the Research Library.

Bob Cherry, Volunteer and Map Guy Extraordinaire

Bob Cherry loves maps. Anyone who has ventured into the Museum’s Research Library when he is volunteering on Tuesdays and Thursdays and has encountered him hard at work organizing the Museum’s map collection (nearly 4000 maps—some over 150 years old) can appreciate his enthusiasm about his job. He loves examining them, he loves learning about them, and he loves sharing that learning with other people who have an interest.

During the time he has volunteered in the library, Bob has gathered maps which were stored helter-skelter all over the third floor of the Museum and carefully arranged them in two large map cases in the Reading Room, so that they are easily accessible by geographic area and date. He is gradually adding records for all the maps to our online library catalog so that researchers are informed of our map resources. Bob is the go-to guy for map questions! Stop by the Research Library some time when he is here and get a guided tour of our map collection treasures.

Bob is an engineer, retired from Scripps Institute of Oceanography where he went down to the sea in ships for about 30 years, having many adventures aboard the FLIP and numerous submarines. Besides volunteering at the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Air & Space Museum, he reads a lot and enjoys doing pen and ink art on aviation themes as well as animals. Bob and his wife, Mary Jane, are members of the Museum’s Live Oaks Society.



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