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Modern-Day Wrangling of an Unruly Map Collection

By Theodore W. Sheppard, Michael R. Rushin, Christa L. Goldsborough, and Julie M. Danfora

(Left to right) Theo Sheppard, Julie Danfora, Mike Rushin, and Chris Goldsborough. (Left to right) Theo Sheppard, Julie Danfora, Mike Rushin, and Chris Goldsborough. At the time, they were the Historic Quadrangle Scanning Project Team, also known as the map wranglers.
Photo Credit: Lisa Adamo

Imagine a scene from the early American frontier. Picture a broad blue river, partly cloudy sky, trees showing new growth, and mountains off in the distance. Perched beside the river upon a noble steed is a cowboy, contentedly watching his herd of cattle make the crossing. It’s been a long drive this year, starting in the north where the cattle grazed on green pastures—its ultimate destination will be somewhere further south. Suddenly, the cowboy hears the mooing of some calves that are struggling across the river and realizes that they could soon be swept away downstream in the current and lost forever.

Theo Sheppard here, and I am that cowboy—metaphorically speaking, that is. Known as "Woodland Tint" in map wrangling circles, I have spent the last 4½ months ensuring that lost and wayward maps don’t fall through the cracks into the sands of time, much in the same way that the cowboy rescues the struggling calves. As part of a team of topographic map wranglers, I have been working on the Historical Quadrangle Scanning Project with the ultimate goal of providing the American public with digital copies of all USGS topographic maps printed from the 1870s to the early 2000s.

Photo of Mike Rushin (left) and Theo Sheppard
Mike Rushin (left) and Theo Sheppard building corrals for the unruly maps to be shipped for scanning.
Photo Credit: Julie Danfora

As the saying goes, "No topographic map wrangler is an island." The work we do here is truly a team effort. With pistols blazing and lassos tying, Michael Rushin, renowned far and wide as "The Quadrangle Kid," has arrived on the range that is the basement of the USGS Library in Reston, Va., resolute that no map will go unwrangled. Christa Goldsborough, a veritable modern-day Sacagawea, possesses an uncanny knack to always choose the best method of approach, constantly finding ways to avoid possible difficulties. If the undaunted Julie Danfora prospected as much gold as she has discovered previously unaccounted-for quadrangles, she would be a millionaire many times over! Together our team has wrangled maps from the rugged shores of Maine to the peaks of the Cascades, identifying edition years, imprint dates, scales, and geographic datum with the speed of a pinto pony at full gallop, while distinguishing visual differences between seemingly identical maps with the cunningness of a wily coyote.

If by this time you are thinking something along the lines of, "Enough imagery, shoot straight with me," I’ll give you some real-world background. Around 2 years ago, the Topographic Map Archive was sent out to be scanned, under the assumption that the archive contained a complete collection of every topographic map that the USGS had produced. However, it was soon established that the archival collection had a number of gaps. To fill in these critical gaps, our team spent the summer systematically filtering through the library’s circulating collection and another "shadow collection" of maps. We also have an arrangement in place with the Library of Congress and occasionally saddle up and ride into Washington, D.C., to perform the same kind of work with their collections. Our time at the U. S. Geological Survey has been awesome. We all feel fortunate to work with the great people here, especially Reston Library manager Lisa Adamo and project director Gregory Allord. Helping to explore the New Frontier of map wrangling has been a rewarding and fruitful experience!