Bath library goes through great pains to preserve antique maps

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by Nathan Strout, courtesy of The Times Record

For Robin Haynes, there’s nothing quite like an old map to transport one back in time.  “The closest thing you can have to touching the past is to touch something from that past,” said Haynes.

Fortunately for her, she has access to a lot of maps. Haynes is the manager of the Sagadahoc History and Genealogy Room at the Patten Free Library (ME), where they have a collection of maps dating all the way back to the 18th century.  “They range from the Woolwich plat map of 1751 to a railroad map from the early 20th century that also discusses the ice houses along the Kennebec River,” said Haynes.

In fact, the library has around 17 maps. And this year, as part of their 40th-anniversary celebration, the History Room has had virtually all of its maps conserved so that they’ll be around for generations to come.

“Most of our maps are originals, and originals age. Sometimes it’s because the paper they’re on isn’t a great quality paper or it’s simply acidic and it darkens and yellows with time. So part of the process is having them deacidified,” said Haynes.

Other maps present their own difficulties.

“Some of these maps were actually folded and are of several smaller pieces of paper glued together, but then the whole big map has been folded and the structure of the paper breaks down where it was folded, and that paper needs to be reinforced,” she explained.

Moreover, the conservation and deacidification process changes the coloring of the maps and the paper they were printed on. Now even the oldest maps look much like they would have when they were originally produced centuries ago.  “They’re coming back a totally different color from when they went out,” said Haynes. “I knew that would happen, but still, it kind of takes me aback.”

For Haynes, the maps are an invaluable part of the History Room’s collections. While visitors can trace back their ancestry through the room’s genealogies, there’s nothing quite like pointing out a plot of land on a map and connecting that to one’s family tree, noted Haynes. Some of the maps, especially old insurance maps, can be helpful to developers today, showing where old infrastructure used to be and what surprises might be hidden under that ground after all these years — like maybe an old forgotten brownfield.

While on the surface maps are about geography, they can also function as a window into the values of the people of the past.

“What is it that they’ve decided is important enough to put on a map? It’s, I think, interesting to see what someone wants to emphasize,” said Haynes. “Some of these maps probably are seen with totally different eyes not because we don’t have the same concerns.”

Although maps can be preserved in a digital format, Haynes knows there’s nothing like the real thing. For one thing, a physical object helps people connect to the past in a very real way. To touch an artifact or to be able to view one up close appeals to one’s senses in a way that a newsletter or genealogy cannot. The physical object brings the past to life.

“Knowing you can touch it is different than that digital reproduction,” noted Haynes.

In addition, digital reproductions can be problematic in their own way. Sometimes the resolution is not as clear as it ought to be, or sometimes the colors can get warped in the process. And with the way we store digital information constantly evolving, it’s not exactly clear that digital formats are the best way to preserve reproductions over long periods. A wrong click of the mouse can delete a folder with dozens of vital records or reproductions, or a formatting error can corrupt the data. Conserving the original item is the only way to ensure that it will be around for another couple ofcenturies.

“It definitely isn’t as secure as having the physical object,” said Haynes of digital copies.

To that end, Haynes expects that the maps that were deacidified and conserved to last another 100 years before more work needs to be done to preserve them. That’s because in addition to deacidifying them and restoring them to their original look, the maps have been placed in specialty frames that will protect them from light damage and further aging.

That work cost $18,000 in total and was made possible through a generous donation from a History Room volunteer, which was supplemented by other donations. Haynes expressed gratitude for those who stepped forward to make this project possible. The maps were sent to Nina Rayer of Rayer Fine Arts Conservation in Portland for conservation. Haynes also specifically pointed out the work of Teresa and Peter Fogg of Fogg Art Restoration in Wiscasset, who she said were vital to the project’s successful completion.

To celebrate the yearlong effort to conserve the History Room’s maps, the Patten Free Library will be hosting a lection by Professor Matthew Edney of the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education. Edney’s talk, appropriately titled “The Joy of Old Maps: Mapping Bath, the Kennebec, and Maine,” will cover not only the history of cartography and value of maps, but will also specifically touch on the History Room’s local collection.

For Haynes, Edney’s talk is the perfect capstone to mark the end of Patten Free Library’s celebration of the History Room’s 40th anniversary. And fittingly, Haynes expects most, if not all, of the maps to be back in the library for the talk.