Historic library's move a tale of patience, packing, and police escorts
William Roselle (center), retired director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Golda Meir Library, received the American Geographical Society's Samuel F. B. Morse Medal, with colleague Barbara Borowiecki, at the University of Delaware on April 15 for their efforts in moving the AGS library from New York City to Milwaukee in the 1970s. Shown with Roselle are Jerome Dobson, president of AGS and Mary Lynne Bird, executive director. Photo by Duane Perry
The oldest map in the American Geographical Society Library is this medieval European map of the world, or "mappamundi." It is one of three known world maps signed and dated by the 15th-century cargographer Giovanni Leardo and is considered to be the finest example of its kind preserved in the Western Hemisphere. Click this link for a closer look.
Entrance to the American Geographical Society Library. With more than 1.2 million items, from maps to books, photos, and globes, the library has been described as the largest privately owned geographical research collection in the Western Hemisphere, and perhaps the world. Photo courtesy University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
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1:20 p.m., April 21, 2009----“Secure home, promising future” -- that's the slogan that William “Bill” Roselle, director of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Library, crafted in the 1970s as part of his institution's lobbying efforts for the American Geographical Society's collection of over 600,000 globes, maps, books, photographs, and other materials.

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In his lecture, “A Moving Experience,” at the University of Delaware on April 17, Roselle, who retired as director of UMW's Golda Meir Library in 1989, shared the tale of the AGS Library's historic move from New York City to Milwaukee, with humor and grace.

Roselle was introduced by Susan Brynteson, vice provost and the May Morris Director of Libraries at UD. The Geography Department and UD Libraries sponsored his talk.

In the 1970s, the American Geographical Society no longer had the facilities and staff to maintain its research library as a public resource and put out the call for a new home for the collection.

Barbara Borowiecki, then chair of the geography department at UWM, approached Roselle with the idea of vying for the collection. The Milwaukee campus was only 16 years old at the time, with a library collection of 700,000 items and a staff of 12 librarians. The addition of the AGS collection would nearly double the library's size.

The transfer of the collection initially was contested by a number of parties ranging from the New York Public Library to then mayor of New York City Ed Koch. After a lengthy and complex series of negotiations, the legal proceedings finally were completed, and within days, moving vans were on site at AGS headquarters to begin the physical transfer of the collection.

Thousands of books needed to be individually wrapped in tissue paper, specially built boxes packed, and shelves installed inside the moving vans.

Among the 115,000 maps to be moved was the oldest in the collection, the Mappamundi, produced in 1452 by the Venetian cartographer Giovanni Leardo. The circular map shows the known world of only Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Roselle said the map was valued at three-quarters of a million dollars in the 1970s and was one of the few items that traveled by plane with him to Wisconsin. In fact, the map even had its own seat on the plane, Roselle said.

The transfer of the AGS Collection from New York to Milwaukee required 16 moving vans, and state police escorts from New York to Wisconsin, not because of fears of terrorism, but of losing the collection on the highway, Roselle said. The whole move was insured for $15 million.

At one rest stop in Indiana, Roselle said a group of people came over to him and a man asked if Roselle could tell them what they were transporting.

“We're moving a library,” Roselle said.

The man said, “Yeah, right.”

“We're a government agency, and that's all I'm permitted to tell you,” Roselle said.

In the end, Roselle said the move “could have been a nightmare, but it wasn't.”

Despite the fact that UMW had the smallest library staff in their peer group of university libraries, according to Roselle, there was no interruption in library services as the AGS Collection was unpacked, cleaned, and cataloged. There were no injuries to the staff throughout the process nor damages to the collection.

“We got it done and did it right,” Roselle said.

Throughout the move, Roselle said his concern was that the AGS Collection be saved, and be living, available as a public resource. Under his stewardship, the “collection” became a “library” and now numbers more than 1.2 million items. It has been described as the largest privately owned geographical research collection in the Western Hemisphere, and perhaps the world.

On April 15, at UD's Louise and David Roselle Center for the Arts, Barbara Borowiecki and William Roselle received the American Geographical Society's Samuel F. B. Morse Medal “for the encouragement of geographical research” for their “drive, dedication, and spirit” in moving the AGS library from New York City to Milwaukee in the 1970s.

Article by Tracey Bryant