NEH Day 1: “Mapping Nature Across the Americas”

filing system

A while back, I promised to blog about the NEH “Mapping Nature Across the Americas” summer institute that I participated in at the Newberry Library during the summer. Please forgive the sporadic nature of these posts – I have just gotten a chance to type up my notes from the first day!

Here’s a quick run down of what we covered (with pictures!):


In the morning, we took care of eating doughnuts (food is only allowed in one room of the Newberry with special supervision and never around the books and maps in the archives!) and introducing ourselves to the group.

Because it’s Chicago, there was someone on the Newberry staff from my neighborhood (not unlike that time in Tampa when the front desk guy at a hotel told me he was from a part of Chicago no one ever visited, which turned out to be down the street from my parent’s house—and all three of us had gone to the same high school, of course).

The program leaders, Jim Ackerman and Kathy Brosnan (both from Chicagoland!), really knew their stuff. They also had a hilarious repartee (particularly since Kathy’s a Sox fan and Jim’s a Cubs fan). I thought they had known each other forever, but it turns out this was their first collaborative project, and I think they were a great team. They did an excellent job herding our group around the Newberry Library and on tours of the surrounding environment(s).

The interdisciplinary focus of our seminar on environmental history was particularly well-suited to the Newberry Library, which houses an interdisciplinary (and multi-disciplinary) collection, with a particularly excellent assortment of cartographic materials, which proved useful to many of our independent research projects.

Although there was only one Canadianist in attendance (guess who!), the hemispheric focus was particularly helpful, because different folks pulled maps from areas ranging from northern North America to southern South America, allowing us all to see materials that we otherwise may not have sought out.

Kathy gave us a great introduction to environmental history, and Jim gave us a stellar overview of the Newberry’s history and place in Chicago. After they spoke, we got to go on a tour of the library’s closed stacks, take #shelfies (pictures with bookshelves), and generally nerd out.

Nanette shelfie

Working Definition:

Paraphrasing Kathy, maps are an expression of human understanding of environment and place.

Quotes from the Day:

“’Show and tell’ is the technical term when you’re dealing with materials at the Newberry Library.”

“I enjoy minor league baseball, so I’m happy to go see the Cubs.”

“Thieves driving by on the bus could steal our wifi signal. I’m really paranoid.”
“Most Cubs fans are.”
“We have learned to expect the worst.”

“Libraries actually sequester carbon.”

“I say in all modesty because I’m not a library.”

Recommended Reading:


The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (mainly recommended because one of the main characters works at the Newberry Library)


Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon (which I purchased used at Myopic Books. They had quite a few copies in the Chicago history section. My friend who’s a high school history teacher also has two copies in her basement, so you know it’s a good resource!)


Encyclopedia of Chicago (online resource)

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