Archive for Friday, January 2, 1998


January 2, 1998


A treasure trove of historical maps is made accessible by a KU librarian's labor.

The Battle of Dead Buffalo Lake in Dakota Territory, 1863, is a long-forgotten bit of warfare overshadowed then and now by much bloodier fights that year.

But the scrap between frontier troops and Indians was enough of an incident to merit a report to Congress. Along with the report went a sketched map of the skirmish. The map, in time, was shipped to the National Archives. There, uncited in catalogs and ignored by scholarly indexes, it became a needle in the haystack of old government documents that has been growing by the ton since 1789.

More than a decade ago, Donna Koepp, then a librarian at the Denver Public Library, decided these old maps, often folded and sandwiched between bound and acidic pages of government dross, should be better preserved.

She quickly learned, however, that there was no reliable record of the maps that existed in the U.S. government document archive known to scholars as the U.S. Serial Set. That, of course, compounded the difficulty of finding and preserving them. So, she began indexing the maps, recruiting scholarly volunteers to help her wade through the reams of reports to find, describe and record their locations in the archival stacks.

"I thought there were maybe 15,000 or 20,000 maps" to save and index, Koepp said.

She also expected the job would take about three years to complete. That was 13 years and 54,000 maps ago.

Next week the final six of 16 volumes of Koepp's map index is slated to arrive at Kansas University's Anschutz Library, where Koepp is now the school's chief librarian for government documents and maps. She's been at KU since the late 1980s.

The index, which sells for $4,000 a set, is published by Congressional Information Service Inc. It includes descriptions and locator information for all known maps from public domain government documents between 1789 and 1969.

Koepp said government maps have been well indexed since 1970, the approximate onset of the computer age. For that reason her index stops at 1969.

Robert Karrow, curator of maps at the Newberry Library, Chicago, provided this blurb to help promote sales of Koepp's multivolume set:

"Serial Set maps, although widely owned, have been largely ignored because they are so difficult to access. The Index will remedy this fault and add a vast corpus of original cartographic artifacts to the usable archives of American history."

Sales of earlier volumes of the index, "have been very good," said Koepp, who ceded copyright and all royalties from the index to the university in exchange for grant sponsorship midway through the project.

Koepp ultimately got $745,000 in grants from U.S. Department of Education and National Endowment for the Humanities to complete the indexing. As the undertaking evolved from volunteer enterprise to major project, she ended up hiring five or six people to work on it. That's where the grant money went, she said.

The project consumed more of her life than she ever expected, Koepp said, and it will be some while before she looks for another big project to tackle.

"I'm a free woman ever since September," she said, which is when she completed proofs of the index's final volumes. "I'll probably crack a bottle of champagne" when the last six books arrive at the library next week.

-- Mike Shields' phone message number is 832-7144. His e-mail address is

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