Pioneer map librarian Walter Ristow dies at 97
April 17th, 2006 by JTJ

One of those fine, “I didn't know that” obits in the NYTimes today

Walter W. Ristow, who was known never to have gotten lost and would
have had no excuse if he had — considering he was in charge of more
maps than anybody else in the world — died April 3 in Mitchellville,
Md. He was 97.

The cause was coronary artery disease, his family said.

Dr. Ristow was head of the map divisions at the New York Public
Library, which has more than 400,000 maps, and later at the Library
Congress, which holds more than 5 million maps.

He is credited with molding the profession of the modern-day map
librarian, and was a prolific cartographic scholar as well, writing
hundreds of articles and several important books.

“Walter Ristow may be accounted one of the most influential figures
— perhaps the most influential figure — in map librarianship in the
United States, and he has won the highest international standing in his
field,” Helen Wallis, the map librarian at the British Library, wrote
in 1979.

Dr. Ristow's writings covered maps as far back as those of
16th-century explorers. But quirky detours into more populist terrain
kept popping up: Dr. Ristow (pronounced RIS-toe) wrote discursively
about the history of free gas station road maps, lamenting their
extinction after billions were printed.

He also told of the usefulness of maps of 12,000 American cities and
towns produced by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Company. “Geography is
about the human interaction with the land; a map makes a very definite
statement: 'This is where it is,' ” said John Hébert, head of the
Geography and Maps Division at the Library of Congress. “Dr. Ristow
knew that maps can take us from where we are to where we aren't.

“He saw maps as the way we document man's impact on the land.”

When Dr. Ristow began work in 1937 at the New York Public Library, there were fewer than 30 American map librarians.

Over the next half-century, introduction of computerized cataloging;
his writings on the field, including the influential “The Emergence of
Maps in Libraries” (1980); and his spirited recruitment of map
librarians jump-started a new field.

“He was the leading light in the beginning of map librarianship,”
said John Wolter, Dr. Ristow 's immediate successor at the Library of

Dr. Ristow paved the way for today's computerized cartography,
through which people can essentially create personalized maps. His push
to automate the Library of Congress's map catalog was helpful in
globalizing map data, Mr. Hébert said.

Walter William Ristow was born on April 20, 1908, in La Crosse, Wis.
His father was a streetcar conductor who worked 365 days a year to feed
seven children, Mr. Ristow's son Steve said.

In fifth grade, Walter announced he would no longer attend a
German-language Lutheran school, partly because of lingering
anti-German feelings from World War I.

In 1931, he graduated from the University of Wisconsin, where he
majored in geography, then earned a master's in geography from Oberlin
College and a doctorate from Clark University.

One explanation of his initial interest in the subject was his
enchantment with still-unexplored places. Another was that geography
was then considered a science, but required no labs; he could not pay
lab fees and needed to fulfill a science requirement, his son explained.

At the New York library's map room, Dr. Ristow was delighted that
his job included fielding geographic questions. Where were the Western
cattle trails? How do I get to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn? Where is the
Far East? Could you settle an argument and tell us how far a ship would
be visible before disappearing over the horizon?

A visitor once requested and got a map of Pomerania from Dr. Ristow,
who later asked if she had found what she wanted. “Not yet,” she
answered, throwing open her coat to reveal a Pomeranian dog. “I'm
looking for a name for him.”

After Pearl Harbor, Dr. Ristow showed up at Room 312 on the
library's third floor only at lunch hours. It turned out that he was
huddling with spies in a nook of Rockefeller Center, making map packets
for bomber pilots. The two jobs came together when he was asked to use
the library to find spellings of place names from intercepted messages.

After the war, the Army found itself with hundreds of thousands of
maps it had confiscated. Existing map libraries were the logical
repository, and new ones were soon added.

“All of a sudden, somebody had to take care of these things, and a
whole field was born,” said Alice Hudson, the current chief of the map
room at the New York Public Library.

Dr. Ristow joined the Library of Congress in 1946, became chief of
the map department in 1967 and retired in 1978. The next year, he
helped found the Washington Map Society, which named a prize after him
for the year's best writing on cartographic history or map
librarianship. In 1985, he published a book on commercial cartography,
an oddly neglected subject.

His hobbies included using watercolors to reproduce historic maps.
After he died, his family found a bulging file of handwritten maps —
directions to people's houses and so on — he had collected over many
years. He had evidently been planning to write about them.

Dr. Ristow is survived by his sons, Richard, of Providence; Bill, of
Seattle; and Steve, of Falls Church, Va.; his brothers, Fred, Bob and
Harold, all of La Crosse; and three grandchildren. His wife of 43
years, the former Helen Doerr, died in 1987.

“She was probably the weakest map reader of the bunch, which suited
him,” Steve Ristow said of his parents and family vacations. “His role
was clear.”

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