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Mapping L.A.

Californians sometimes fatalistically joke that one day an earthquake will make their state an island. But until very late in the 17th century, California was believed to be an island. This manuscript map of the Baja Peninsula and what is now the state of California was drawn by Johannes Vingboons for the Dutch West India Co. in approximately 1639.

“Free Harbor Jubilee,” 1899 “Map of Baja California Shown as an Island,” ca. 1639

A new exhibition, “Los Angeles Mapped” features this map and more than 20 others from the extraordinary collections of the Library’s Geography and Map Division. Unlike most Library exhibitions, which are on view in Washington, this presentation can be seen in Los Angeles in the Ira Gershwin Gallery of the Walt Disney Concert Hall through January 2007.

These diverse works of craftsmanship, precision and imagination provide a guide to some of the most remarkable stories of the city’s history: its discovery, growth and industries, as seen by explorers, engineers, artists, residents and boosters.

The Geography and Map Division houses more than 4.6 million cartographic materials, including 60,000 atlases, 6,000 reference works, numerous globes and three-dimensional plastic relief models, and a large number of cartographic materials in other formats, including electronic. Maps and atlases were among the first items acquired when the Library of Congress was established in 1800. It was not until 1897, however, when the Library of Congress moved into its own building (now called the Thomas Jefferson Building), that a separate Hall of Maps and Charts was created to house the growing collection of 47,000 maps and 1,200 atlases. The division currently occupies an area of 90,000 square feet in the Library's James Madison Building. The area was specifically designed and constructed to accommodate a variety of cartographic collections, library functions and a professional and technical staff of 58.

Annual additions to the Geography and Map Division's collections average 100,000-120,000 maps and 2,000 atlases. Because surveying and mapping are significant U.S. government functions and responsibilities, approximately 60 percent of the maps and 20 percent of the atlases are received from official government sources. Most private and commercial cartographic works published in the United States are acquired through Copyright or through purchase. Many rare and valuable maps and atlases in the collections have been presented to the division by generous and public-minded citizens.

Perhaps the most notable map in the collection is Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map, which grew out of an ambitious project in St. Dié, near Strasbourg, France, during the first decade of the 16th century, to document and update new geographic knowledge derived from the discoveries of the late 15th and the first years of the 16th centuries. Waldseemüller’s large world map was the most exciting product of that research effort and included data gathered during Amerigo Vespucci’s voyages of 1501-1502 to the New World. Waldseemüller christened the new lands "America" in recognition of Vespucci’s understanding that a new continent had been uncovered as a result of the voyages of Columbus and other explorers in the late 15th century. The Library has the only known surviving copy of the first printed edition of the map, which, it is believed, consisted of 1,000 copies.

Many of the division’s maps can be viewed online in American Memory, a Web site of more than 10.5 million items of American history and culture. To see the map collections, go to

A. “Free Harbor Jubilee,” 1899. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-ppmsca-10486 (digital file from original print); Call No.: POS - US .D475, no. 1 (C size) [P&P]

B. Johannes Vingboons, cartographer. “Map of Baja California Shown as an Island,” ca. 1639. This manuscript map of the Baja Peninsula and what is now the state of California was drawn by Johannes Vingboons for the Dutch West India Company in approximately 1639. Geography and Map Division. Reproduction information: Contact: