Make Friends with Librarians

Digital Humanities (DH) projects are often interdisciplinary and require the help individuals from a variety of backgrounds. Perhaps the most important people for these projects are librarians. At my university, I am lucky in that there is an entire DH initiative based out of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences as well as the library. Many of the staff members who train us in DH methods and advise our projects work directly for the library. They have also served as excellent liaisons between students and the wide variety of library services that are often hidden.

My dissertation incorporates a large DH digital mapping component. I’m tracking the locations of German prisoner of war camps in the USSR from 1941-1956 as a way to make a large-scale economic argument about the long-lasting detainment of the German POWs after the end of the war in 1945. One stage of the mapping process that I’m about to undertake is layering the locations of the camps over Soviet produced economic geography maps from the 1940s to discuss POW contribution to various sectors of the economy. To do this, I must do a process called georeferencing. I take a scanned map and line up points (such as cities, or tracing rivers and coastlines) from it with my base-map in the mapping software. Before I can do the process, though, I needed to get high quality scans of the Soviet maps.

Based in the library, we have weekly drop-in hours for DH. People can come it and consult others in the room for help with their projects. In my case, I’m working with a GIS librarian, as well as a CLIR Fellow in Data Visualization who also has a GIS background. When discussing the georeferencing task with them, they introduced me to the library’s chief digitization specialist. She invited me on a trip to the library’s offsite storage location, where the digitization department is based for space concerns. The staff helped me scan a series of maps on special, face-up scanners at a very high quality. One issue with my map sources is that they are quite often large, fold out maps bound into thick books. These types of sources would be extremely difficult to scan on a traditional copy machine scanner like I have access to in my department. The library’s digitization scanners were face-up and had a special platform specifically for bound books that allowed the two sides of the spine to be at different levels to create a flat surface under the glass scanner face. The scanning specialist also saved the scans for me in the highest quality resolution, which is necessary to zoom in and do all the tracing and lining up of points more accurately.

Super fancy scanners. Apparently the Library of Congress uses these same ones.

In addition to doing my scanning work, I was allowed to wander through the library’s offsite book storage. Not all university libraries keep all their books on the shelves of the library. As they acquire more books, older, rarely used books are taken to offsite storage areas. Many of my good book finds have been from seeing what was on the shelf near a different book that I found through a catalog search. This, unfortunately, is not possible with offsite books. However, the offsite librarians gave me free reign to wander around the offsite stacks. I searched in a few sections for the books that I use (generally Library of Congress DK books) to see if I had been missing any useful, older books.

Books, books, and more books!

Walking through the stacks, I felt like I was living out the archive scene from GoldenEye. I was super giddy to get to see the library technology and storage facilities, and the library staff was equally excited to show off their wares and help a lowly grad-student with her research. Make friends with the librarians. They will make your research life much less stressful, and you might get to take a fieldtrip to a cool school-based location.

Continuing to live out my James Bond fantasies.

Soviet Military Maps

Do you like Cold War era espionage and intrigue? How about mapping and historical geography? Are you a fan of James Bond films? Care to pretend like you are in one? Well, boy do I have the resources for you to realize these fantasies. Two Christmases ago, I was having coffee with a childhood friend, who told me that he had purchased his mother some declassified Soviet military maps for Christmas. This reminded me of an article that I had been sent by a different friend from Wired. Basically, the Soviets engaged in a large-scale map making project for the entire world. A cache of these maps had been discovered in the former Baltic republics of the Soviet Union. Enterprising locals, some of whom had a fair amount of disdain towards the Russian government, realized that they could make money selling off these former top-secret military resources.

I’m not sure how my friend came across them, but he did and purchased a few original maps as well as a few reproductions through eBay. The original maps are in wonderful quality, the reproductions not so much. We had coffee and I translated the map key for him. Fast forward to about a month ago, another good friend showed me a review of a book called The Red Atlas, authored in part by one of the subjects of the Wired article, John Davies. It’s the first book to examine the Soviet military maps in depth. I altered my friend to the book, and he in turn gave me the information for the eBay store from which he purchased his maps.

Being a bit of a mapping nerd these days, I was ecstatic to see that there was a Soviet military map for Boston, its surrounding area, and the Atlantic Ocean. At only $25, I felt compelled to buy the map. Mostly I wanted it for the map of Cape Cod, where I spend most of my time when not required to be at school or gallivanting around Russia. It only cost $5 for shipping from Latvia, and the package arrived four days after I ordered it.

I got a map from Latvia in four days. It took 2 months to receive a letter from the USA in Moscow.

Upon opening the map, I was extremely happy to see the level of detail that the Soviets had put into the map. Chatham Light House was there, as is CQX, the tiny municipal airport that can only service propeller planes. Naturally, the Hyannis Airport was on the map, as is Camp Edwards and its Otis Air Force Base.

Cape Cod as mapped by the Soviets in 1986

Luckily for me, my university library had just ordered a copy of Red Atlas, which I was happy to check out. The book itself is a Soviet history nerd’s dream. The cover states совершенно секретно (sovershenno sekretno, top secret). The majority of my archival sources were generally stamped with this, so it’s a phrase that I’m always interested to see. Indeed, as Davies and Kent note in their book, there were different maps, which had different scales, details, and levels of secrecy. Thankfully, this book includes handy keys to decipher the military maps. Using the key with my Boston map, I’m able to discern quite a lot more from the map than just how the Soviets tactically analyzed the area from which I come.

So most of my map of Boston happens to be the Atlantic Ocean. You have to know where to sail the submarine if you want to avoid the plot of “The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.”

Knowing Russian, I am able to read from the map that is from the 1986 iteration of mapping, though the map itself was printed in 1993. With a quick Yandex (the Russian Google) search, I was able to decipher the acronyms of the publisher. The map says that it was published by the Military Topographic Directorate of the General Staff with the original information from the Main Directorate of Geodesy and Cartography of the Council of Ministers of the USSR. I know that the scale is 1:1,000,000. According to Red Atlas, this means that my map was a small-scale/general terrain evaluation map, which was an unclassified map. The book also gives me a better understanding of where the map was printed. My particular map was printed in December 1993 with a factory code of И (or I) for Irkutsk, a major city in Siberia.

TL;DR – Soviet military maps are cool. You can buy them online, and there’s a nifty book that explains the maps and the massive efforts it took to produce them, an undertaking that was and still is shrouded in mystery.