U-M Clements Library contributes historic maps to national project examining city growth

An 1830 street plan of Detroit is one of five items that the University of Michigan (U-M) William L. Clements Library recently contributed to a new national project called "Mapping a World of Cities."


The project, a joint effort of Chicago's MacLean Collection Map Library and the Norman B. Leventhal Map and Education Center in Boston, boasts almost 90 historic maps from six continents. Clements Library is one of 10 American organizations that provided items from their digital collections.


Mary Pedley, curator of the map division of the Clements Library, says being invited to participate in the project was not a surprise.


"We're in good company. If you look at the contributors of 'Mapping a World of Cities' you'll also notice maps from places like the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library," she says. "Clements Library's map division is very strong, with about 30,000 maps and a couple of thousand atlases, many of which are very, very rare."


She says choosing which five maps to contribute to the project was a bit challenging due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Essentially, all contributors were limited to selecting items in their map collections that were already digitized.


In addition to the street map of Detroit, Pedley chose a military plan of St. Augustine in Florida from 1775. She says it's "one of the biggest strengths of the Clements Library's map division."


These maps, and the others that Pedley chose, can be viewed by visiting the "Mapping a World of Cities" website and using the search function. All the maps are arranged on a scrollable timeline, allowing viewers a look at current and past challenges of various cities.


"People often say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Maps work the same way," Pedley says. "Maps almost give us a visual shorthand of not only what a city is, but what a city has been and can be."


She explains that a project like "Mapping a World of Cities" allows people to look at the same cities over a period of time. They can see the stories of how some cities have best served their populations.


Since most of these maps show cities in the context of their surroundings, viewers can get insight into factors such as changing transportation needs, the cities' relationship with nearby bodies of water, and housing needs and affordability, to name a few.


"This project can really add a lot to our understanding of how our cities grow. We can learn what makes them livable places, what makes people want to visit, and what has made some cities successful for so long," Pedley says.


Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.


Photo courtesy of Clements Library.