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UMN News: Delving deeper

If you want to dig deeper than Google Maps or Mapquest, the University’s Borchert Map Library has hundreds of thousands of maps and images of the Twin Cities area, some so detailed that “you can see the shadows cast by the trees.”FROM UMN NE


Delving deeper

Resources in U’s Borchert Map Library reveal complex views of world

Kristi Jensen
Photo by Jayme Halbritter
Kristi Jensen, head of the Borchert Map Library, with treasures from the library collection.

If you need driving directions and parking recommendations to a new restaurant, typing a few details into Web sites such as Google Maps or Map Quest can get you those answers in seconds.

But what if you want to go deeper?

What if you want to know what business was on that property 10 years ago? Or how the surrounding land and water features have changed over the last 30 years? A deeper search like this takes more time, but the resources of an academic map library like the University of Minnesota’s Borchert Map Library help make it possible. Named in honor of well-known Regents’ geography professor John R. Borchert, this library (part of the University Libraries system and housed in Wilson Library on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis) includes resources such as aerial photographs and topographic maps that can reveal the histories of towns, neighborhoods, and even individual properties.

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“Maps can contain a wealth of information and analysis on one piece of paper that would typically be found in a chapter of a book,” Kristi Jensen explains. As head of the map library, Jensen understands the layers of information contained in a single map or photo.

Borchert’s resources, particularly about Minnesota, are noteworthy: 370,000 sheet maps, 9,600 atlases, and 415,000 aerial photos including photos from the 1930s to near-present for Minnesota and high-resolution digital images from 1997, 2000, and 2005 for the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. Some aerial photos of St. Paul date back to the 1920s.

Jensen describes a map library as “a collection of geographic resources that allow people to look at the earth from a variety of perspectives. You can look at a point from close up or farther out.” She explains that any one map can present various data—vegetation, demographics, soil, and topography are examples.

How someone interprets the information makes a difference. When using or studying a map, a person needs to ask key questions about any potential bias in the map: Who produced it? When was it published? What data are presented together? What kind of skew may be present? Map librarians play a crucial role by ensuring users find the information they need.

“Maps can contain a wealth of information and analysis on one piece of paper that would typically be found in a chapter of a book,” says Kristi Jensen.

Students from the University and area colleges also use the Borchert Library as a laboratory, researching class projects and even questions about their own campuses. Last spring, Jensen worked with University professors Laura Musacchio and John Koepke, who were co-teaching Ecological Dimensions of Spacemaking in the Department of Landscape Architecture.

“Our students worked on a master plan project that sought to breathe new life into Lake Sarita, a degraded wetland that is located off the Transit Way and Steam Plant on the St. Paul campus,” says Musacchio. “The goal of the project is to use Lake Sarita as a living laboratory for environmental education, stormwater management, and wildlife habitat by restoring its wetland features.”

Students used the map Library to document how wetlands, lakes, and streams near the campus were altered, buried, and destroyed by urban growth. The class “found that Lake Sarita was once a good-sized lake, but it was filled in over time and only a small remnant wetland now remains,” Musacchio says. Several students, as a result of their fieldwork and research in Borchert, were selected to present their master plan projects to the Stormwater Linkage Committee and provide important creative inspiration for the future plans.

Revealing a property’s history plays an important role in real estate transactions, and people like Kyle Shannon use the Borchert Library to construct timelines.

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“There are some photos (from the 1970s) that are 1 to 100 scale, so the detail is so intense that you can see the shadows cast by the trees,” says Shannon, a research associate with Environmental Data Resources.

Shannon regularly pulls aerial photos from each decade to piece together changes on a property. His timelines can help point to possible environmental issues, such as storage tanks that may have been removed or fire and other building damage.

Wayfinding is only a part of the story in the Borchert Map Library. It’s resources reveal a much deeper history than what is visible at street level.

The library is open during the winter break (December 21 to January 21) noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. In the spring (January 22 to May 9), library hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Edited from Continuum, a publication by University Libraries.