During my time at the Library of Congress, I have worked on two good examples of the intrinsic relationship between a tangible object and its intangible value—an early 17th c. Persian manuscript and an oversized, 1825, Tanner atlas. As I spent hours upon hours trying to save every possible bit of original material, I meditated on what I was preserving. Were the pea-sized map fragments vital enough to put back in place, or was the repair of pest damage located only in the margins of the Persian manuscript truly necessary? One could argue that they were not. The information was still legible, even if the object was difficult to handle, and there was plenty of physical material to inform future researchers. Additionally, the Persian manuscript had already been digitized and was freely available to everyone. However, there is so much more to these objects.
Through research, I initially came to understand the informational and artifactual values of Tanner’s New American Atlas. It is a pivotal accomplishment in the history of U.S. commercial cartography due to the quality and consistency of its materials, techniques, scale, and data sources. But there is another side to this story, one that looks at the atlas’ societal ramifications. It is a prime example of how American cartographers legitimized the appropriation of North American territories from other imperial and American Indian nations. For example, Tanner chose to identify approximately 450,000 square miles of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean as “Oregon Terry,” before it was ever legally occupied or owned. The actual Oregon Treaty between Great Britain and the United States wasn’t signed until 1846, and at the time the map was first published, 1823, the land was occupied by about three hundred British and French-Canadians and a countless number of American Indians, but not one American. By reflecting and visually shaping the manifest intentions of the current political conversation, with what was considered scientific authority, Tanner heavily influenced how Americans and the U.S. government perceived what their nation’s geographical identity should be. This perception promoted actions, such as the map’s explicit use in informing negotiations between the United States and Great Britain, and potentially influenced policies like President Monroe’s proposal to remove all Native Americans from the territory. This might not be the American underdog origin story we have been taught, but it is a complex and important aspect of our country’s development we must not forget. As a result, recognizing the atlas as more than just a collection of maps is a crucial part of my job because it will affect how this evocative object will be preserved and its message transmitted to future generations.