Library’s Challenging Case

Rare Map Requires Unique, Mammoth Encasement

Posted July 10, 2007 at 4:18pm

America, it appears, was born in 1507 and has the certificate to prove it.

The documentation comes in the form of a map, released that year by Martin Waldseemuller, where the then-unconquered chunk of land across the Atlantic Ocean was first labeled “America,” after famed cartographer Amerigo Vespucci.

Around 1,000 copies were originally pressed, it is believed, yet only one is still known to exist — and it was acquired in 2003 by the Library of Congress.

So in an effort to put the 4-foot-2-inch-by-7-foot-7-inch artifact on public display, Library officials are in the process of building a special case to house and protect the map, something that is not an easy task.

While many other similar display cases have been built, this one is different.

“The main challenge is certainly the size,” said Elmer Eusman, an assistant to the director for preservation at the Library who is working on the project.

“When things get big it gets hopelessly more complicated” to build an encasement for them, he said. “It’s a lot more difficult to treat a poster than a postage stamp.”

At 500 years old and printed on European paper, the map is in risk of damage from multiple environmental maladies, most notably oxygen and light.

Exposure to both of those, Eusman said, can be “quite deadly” for artifacts such as the map, so to prevent damage while on display the Library will house it in an argon gas-filled chamber (argon being one of the stable and nonreactive gasses).

While similar smaller encasements are in use at other repositories now, including the National Archives, the Library is still running various tests to ensure such an environment will prevent fading and paper oxidation.

“All of the preliminary data show this will be a huge improvement,” said Dianne van der Reyden, the Library’s director for preservation. “We don’t have any reason to think it is going to be a problem.”

Yet Eusman noted some uncertainties still exist — such as ensuring as much oxygen is removed as possible and actually moving the nearly 2,500-pound case and support system (400 to 500 pounds of which is the front glass panel alone) into the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. Finished, it probably will be too large to go through the building’s doors, so Eusman said they expect to hoist the encasement in through a second-story window sometime in mid-October.

Like the purchase of the actual map itself, a large portion of the cost of constructing the case is being covered in the form of donations. Alcoa Inc., for example, will be donating the aluminum, while Solutia Inc. will be providing glazing.

If all goes well, the map is expected to go on permanent display, as required by the acquisition contract, on Dec. 12.

Visitors “will be looking at a document that changed the understanding of the world,” said John Hébert, chief of the geography and map division at the Library.