The Hist of MapHist

A Chronicle of the Origins of the Map History Discussion List, 1993-94

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by Ed Dahl

It appears that what has become "MapHist" (the Map History Discussion List) has its origins in a lunch conversation between Tony Campbell and David Cobb in August 1993 in Barcelona during the International Federation of Library Association's conference.

What follows is a chronicle rather than a definitive history of the genesis of MapHist. It is simply a selection of excerpts from messages of that period in my "MapHist" file which chronicle the events and give the flavour of those months from when the listserv was first discussed until David Cobb's "It's Ready!!" on 7 March 1994.

August 1993

Late in August 1993, David wrote: "Just what you wanted to hear about: another listserv to subscribe to???? While at the IFLA meetings last week, Tony Campbell and I began to discuss the possibility of developing a listserv devoted to 'old maps', and the possibility of locating it at Harvard is something I will check into now that I am back." (Cobb to Dahl, 30 August 1993). My reply was: "David -- Wonderful idea -- I'm all for it (I have in fact thought several times during the past months myself that such a listserv WOULD be nice, but it seemed like an extravagance)," and I congratulated David and Tony "for going beyond my idle musing about it" and ended with "What can I do to help at this point other than to say 'go for it'?" (Dahl to Cobb, 30 August 1993).

I then forwarded this message to Tony Campbell and added: "I like the idea more the more I think about it! Hope it flies."

September 1993

Three weeks later, David wrote: "We may have an announcement on the formation of the 'oldmaps@harvarda.edu' listserv within the next month. It seems to be a very real possibility and, without having to edit it initially, I think it will be a 'no brainer' to start. I am going to work up a simple Goals Statement and Definition which I will run by the three of you -- any others??? -- for your comments, suggestions and additions, etc., and then we may actually Go For It!!" (Cobb to Dahl, Charley Seavey and Bob Martin, 20 September 1993). My reply was: "David -- That's great news! I think this is going to be my favourite listserv, almost too good to be true. Thanks for whatever you have done thus far, and good luck with what's still to come."

Tony Campbell, who had discussed the idea with colleagues at the British Cartographic Society symposium wrote to David that it had been suggested "that the proliferation of listservers was an unhelpful step," but added: "If you, Ed and others are keen to set up and use an Oldmaps listserver, then I am sure we should do so." (Campbell to Cobb; forwarded to Dahl, 21 September 1993). My reply to David included: "P.S. Glad to read Tony's reply. If the oldmaps listserv is not needed, it will die a natural death from neglect, which is fine. My guess is it will flourish. I think it's the place for news for ISCEMites, Imago Mundi-ites, IMCoSites, map collectors, etc. It could give a real boost to the study of old maps, both on a very basic level of finding out where something was published... to more advanced academic research." (Dahl to Cobb, 21 September 1993) And 15 minutes later, this went to Tony Campbell: "Tony -- Yours to David awaited me this morning. Glad to see things are percolating all over the world." (Dahl to Campbell, 21 September 1993)

A few days later, David informed a few of us that his proposal that Harvard host an "Oldmaps Listserv" seemed to have been approved. "Obviously, a description is necessary and I volunteered to provide something for others to think about. Conveniently, I will be leaving on vacation tomorrow for a week in the northern woods of New Hampshire and then on to a sunny week in the Caribbean so you may do what you wish in the interim but, seriously, give the description below some thought and we can work on it some more upon my return." The draft of the "description" which followed began: "OLDMAPS-L is a listserv devoted to those interested in the study, collection, curating, and preservation of older maps." Cobb suggested that normally, the list would deal with pre-1900 items, but should not be restricted by such chronology; stated many ways people would be able to use the list; included a line saying "blah, blah, blah, on how to subscribe, unsubscribe... etc."; asked several questions; and disappeared. (Cobb to Dahl, Seavey, Martin and Campbell, 24 September 1993)

I forwarded this to David Woodward, Barbara Belyea and Matthew Edney and received comments from all of them. Belyea wrote: "The description confuses period and form of maps, implies a vaguely historical approach, but excludes 20c maps for no good reason. I suggest instead a MAPHIST-L, which would make the approach clear, include all periods and forms, and go some way to cancel out the alienation of GIS from the big map picture. Although the proposed list is supposed to be an open one, it seems to emphasize the curatorial over the investigative. No doubt because curators have taken the initiative which the 'investigators' have not. But the description needs to be worded so that the various camps are not simply identified but brought together in a common interest. That is, stress the general concerns instead of the institutional divisions." (Belyea to Dahl, 27 September 1993)

Before David Woodward had received his copy of Cobb's description, he had written to me: "Tony tells me that Dave Cobb is thinking of starting an early maps listserv, and let me say that I would be 100% behind this if he wants to run it from Harvard. Penny Kaiserlian [University of Chicago Press] was just suggesting to me that such a thing would be valuable...." (Woodward to Dahl, 30 September 1993)

October 1993

"Lots of excitement about this!" (Dahl to Cobb, 8 October 1993)

Matthew Edney, on "the proposed OLDMAPS-L // MAPHIST-L" (he preferred "MAPHIST-L") said: "I find myself in agreement with Barbara [Belyea] re. David [Cobb's] original proposal. But I would add/develop a couple of points." He whole-heartedly agreed that the list should be called MAPHIST-L and discussed a number of points at some length, including the fact that many map historians would not have access to the Internet and would need to be encouraged to sign on. He also agreed with Belyea on the question of priorities, saying: "If the emphasis is on the archival and curatorial aspects of old maps, then isn't that simply a specialized part of MAPS-L?" He hoped the listserv might serve as the basic newsletter for historians of cartography. (Edney to Dahl, 9 October 1993)

Many of these comments were circulated and commented upon. David Cobb had developed an attachment to the name he had first suggested, but "MapHist" was heavily favoured. "Well, I liked 'OldMaps' but it seems to be overwhelmingly too antiquarian! OK,OK, I can be changed -- maybe!" (Cobb to Dahl, 12 October 1993)

While the text for the instructions was being circulated and edited, Cobb wrote: "Let's do it!!! Why don't you give me your comments or issue them to the 'group' and we can proceed. Meanwhile, I will tell our technical people to proceed as far as they can go without our text." (Cobb to Dahl, 13 October 1993). The message had "MAPHIST-L" as the subject heading: "See how pliable I am? I've already made the change to Maphist-L which, I agree, should provide a broader definition of the intent of the list" and suggested setting 1 December as the date for a finished set of guidelines and procedures.

November 1993

In mid-November, Jan Smits, map curator at the Royal Library in The Hague posted to an "e-mail group" of 5 of us (Campbell, Cobb, Dahl, Schilder, and De Vries) a detailed and well- thought-out proposal titled "Bulletin-Board for the History of Cartography." This proposal suggested that the "most sophisticated solution would be to have an edited, multi-lingual, structured listserv with the possibility to search an archive file, where all questions and answers are filed." (Smits to Dahl et al., 15 November 1993)

Smits suggested another name for this listserv -- HISTOCAR. My own response was to say that we had just managed to convince David Cobb to accept MapHist over OldMaps (and that HISTOCAR sounded like a list for the history of cars). (Dahl to Smits, 15 November 1993) Jan responded with: "As for the name of the listserv I would like to opt for an acronym or abbreviation which is language-independent in order to make the listserv more recognizable for an international audience. Therefore, I hope you can be creative with the equivalents of 'history' and 'cartography' which makes sense for people with different cultural backgrounds." (Smits to Dahl, 17 November 1993)

Smits's proposal was discussed during the following days and although very positive comments about the potential of this system were voiced, it may simply have been too ambitious for the moment.

December 1993

Many of us during this period were still having problems getting our e-mail systems to communicate with each other, with the result that e-mail and snail mail were being used, and discussions of issues had strange time lags in them. Tony Campbell's message of early December began: "Jan Smits has failed to reach me via e-mail - - and I him. I have therefore received today through the mail his 15 November message headed 'Bulletin-Board for the History of Cartography'." Tony was concerned by what he saw developing. "Are rival systems being developed in N. America and Europe? I very much hope not and, in trying to put people in touch with one another, had optimistically thought that could be avoided." (Campbell to Dahl, 2 December 1993) Faced with the more complex system that Jan was proposing and the simple one to be run at Harvard, Tony opted for the Harvard system. He surmised that the Dutch might need to set up their own system for local Dutch matters, but wanted everyone in one system since "we want to share internationally, surely, what is of international interest."

David Cobb continued to move ahead at Harvard. In a message headed "Jerusalem" (dealing with a map of the city and not referring to MapHist yet), David wrote: "On to 'bigger and other' things. MapHist is moving here, albeit a bit slowly, and I too do not wish to see two lists out there, which I think would really defeat the purpose. Jan's earlier ideas in which he discusses multiple languages, an archive for messages, etc. is more involved that I had planned for anything here at Harvard. Perhaps we Americans have fallen for the 'quick and dirty' concepts more easily. My original and present intent is to foster communication ala Maps-L which has been very effective here in the USA and includes numerous inputs from Europe and Australia." (Cobb to Smits, Dahl and Campbell, 20 December 1993) Mid-January was now given as the date something might begin at Harvard, "but if the opinion is that we should delay for further consultation please let me know."

This message from Cobb prompted Jan Smits to elaborate on his earlier proposals, explaining that he had made two proposals: A. for a normal listserv for the history of cartography with a chronological archive (but one in which "it should be possible to state questions and answers in other than only English/American language, as the history [of cartography] is an international science"), and B. a gopher service for the history of cartography, functioning at the Royal Library in The Hague. He hoped that there would be wide agreement on these initiatives, that 1994 would be "a year of co-operation" and that we would soon be able to congratulate each other on significant advances in this endeavour. (Smits to Cobb, 21 December 1993, included in Smits to Dahl, 23 December)

To Smits I wrote: "The suggestion that David at Harvard run the simple version without all the bells and whistles you were suggesting, and you capturing the best stuff for retrieval by gopher, sounds like a great trans-oceanic compromise!" (Dahl to Smits, 24 December 1993)

January 1994

The new year opened with David Cobb reporting that he was working "discreetly behind the scenes": "Alright, now we are getting down to 'dollars and cents' and 'policy decisions' -- those wonderful administrative type issues. We are either VERY CLOSE to setting up the listserv or we will get mired in the mud of administrative bureaucracy that may kill it." (Cobb to Smits, Dahl and Campbell, 11 January 1994)

And the behind-the-scenes work paid off, for on 28 January 1994, David was able to announce the following: "All the 'powers that be' have just signed off on the approval for the establishment of this list. I will work on some introductory messages for the list, pass them on to you next for review, and begin filling out the myriad of forms to get this 'thing' online. We may not make mid-January as predicted but should make early February." (Cobb to Smits, Edney, Dahl and Campbell, 28 January 1994)

February 1994

Cobb's optimism was boundless. Two weeks later, he wrote: "In a few moments I will be signing papers to begin the process of creating our newest little baby! The funding, etc. has all been approved and matters should now move very quickly!" With the additional foot of snow predicted for the Boston area, David was certain he'd be able to draft some introductory text, instructions on how to subscribe, get archives, etc., over the weekend and would be able to send these out for review and comments. He did not wish to make the list "too formal," but felt it was important to make it "professional." He ended with: "You shall be hearing from me soon and I hope MapHist may actually exist by the end of next week!!!!!" (Cobb to Dahl and others, 11 February 1994) (A lot of exclamation points were used in the construction of MapHist.)

In the middle of the following week, David circulated "Sample Listserv Instructions" consisting of the ones used by Johnnie Sutherland for MAPS-L; Johnnie's permission for us to "borrow or edit liberally" was being requested, and "depending on his decision all we then have to do is write a brief (one-paragraph?) description of this listserv and then it will happen!!!" As a "From" header, Cobb suggested "MAP HISTORY DISCUSSION LIST" and asked for approval (Cobb to D. Woodward, Smits, Edney, Dahl, and Campbell, 16 February 1994)

The following day, David sent out for comments and editing the "MapHist-L Description" that would be sent to each individual who subscribed to the list. Edited draft versions in my file indicate that my own comments were given partly over the telephone and by e-mail, and a revised version ("We are making progress!!") arrived on 22 February. Edney, Seavey and Alberta Wood had approved the text. "Unfortunately, I haven't heard anything from our Europeans who are probably worried about this upstart American doing this." (Cobb to Dahl, 23 February 1994)

But later that day, "MAPHIST - European response" arrived from Tony Campbell (it had snowed in England) who wrote: "So, we ARE with you." Campbell's main concern now was how to publicize the existence of MapHist and "sell" it. He asked several questions and added useful suggestions. (Campbell to Cobb and Dahl, 23 February 1994)

24 February 1994: "If you have no major objections I think we will 'activate' MAPHIST-L on Monday!!!!!!" (Cobb to Dahl)

7 March 1994

Finally, on 7 March the word came. In a message headed "It's Ready!!," David Cobb wrote: "Why don't you send a 'sub' command to the listserv at Harvard per the various instructions you should have and see what happens??" (Cobb to Dahl, 7 March 1994, 11:11:49 a.m.)

My first attempt to subscribe was sent to MAPHIST-L, but this was rejected as being unknown to the Harvard listserv. I was told: "Your request is being forwarded to the nearest backbone server, LISTSERV@BROWNVM." (BITNET list server at HARVARDA to Dahl, 7 March 1994) This information -- that MAPHIST, not MAPHIST-L was the name to be used when subscribing -- was forwarded to Cobb.

I then tried "MAPHIST," and at 14:55:02, got a reply from listproc@camail1.HARVARD.EDU saying "You have been added to list MAPHIST." At 14:33:18 (oops -- the clock in one of our computers was not set correctly) my message to Cobb had as a subject heading -- with TEN exclamation marks -- the following: "I'm on!!!!!!!!!!," and the body of the message read: "David -- See 'Subject' above. Okay, where's the content? Ed."

Cobb's reply was: "Patience!!! You currently are the ONLY one subscribed as I am having trouble doing so right here!!! I wanted to see if it worked for you and, obviously, it does but not perfectly, as I suspected. I am going to go ahead and send out some announcements to the list and persons and we shall see what happens. One never finds out what is really wrong with these kinds of things if it is only one or two people BUT if we can get 40 or 50 playing with it we should REALLY find out what is wrong or right -- oh yeh, I'm really looking forward to this, right??" (Cobb to Dahl, 7 March 1994)

I then sent out to 16 friends ("MAPHIST-L is alive!") instructions on how to subscribe. Matthew Edney's reply was: "Dr Frankenscence: maaaasterrrr!!! it is ALIIVE!!! igor." A little later in the evening, I sent Cobb a message after checking who had subscribed: "David -- Thought you'd get a chuckle out of this -- you and me and the technical man [Hobart Braden] are the only 3 on. Talk about charter members! In fact, let's keep it that way, eh? -- nice and cosy." And at 10 p.m., I checked the subscribers again and found that 4 more had joined -- Barbara Belyea, Matthew Edney, David Woodward, and Mary Pedley. At 10 a.m the next day, 8 March, we had been joined by Linda Maciver, Pellervo Kokkonen, Hugo Stibbe, Andrew Cook, Tony Campbell and Nick Millea for a total of 13, and at 10 p.m. that same day, 52 people had subscribed to MapHist.

By noon of 9 March, we had reached the nice round number of 100 subscribers, and by midnight, 153. On 14 March, 7 days after the list was started, 242 had subscribed (an average of almost 35 per day), and 338 had subscribed at the end of the second week (about 14 per day during that week). At the one-month mark, the total stood at 380, and on 3 May, David announced that the 400th subscriber -- Wil M. Groothuis (Groningen) -- had joined MapHist. (See message 124 for D. Cobb's remarks)

Although the list grew rapidly during these first months to level off eventually around 475 subscribers, not everyone in the map community was happy with the creation of a new discussion list dealing specifically with historical maps, and some very strong opposition was voiced. The main debate for and against MapHist took place on the older map-related discussion list, MAPS-L (Maps and Air Photo Systems Forum) from 8 to 21 March 1994. The monthly log which includes these 17 messages, all with "New Listserv" as the subject heading, can be obtained by MAPS-L subscribers by sending to LISTSERV@UGA.CC.UGA.EDU the following command: GET MAPS-L LOG9403. Three of the messages that appeared on MAPS-L were posted to MapHist by David Cobb and appear in this present volume as message 026.

As was mentioned earlier, this chronicle does not tell the complete story of all the individuals who helped create MapHist. I hope that what does come through clearly is David Cobb's dedication and hard work during the six months it took to get the discussion list launched. It is to him that we owe much of the success of the listserv along with our thanks for the many benefits we have enjoyed from it.