The Geography department honors the legacy of an influential cartographer

Science Hall hosts a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Arthur H. Robinson Map Library, plus the Cartography Lab and State Cartographer’s office the longtime professor helped create.

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UW-Madison alumna Shelley Witte uses a smartphone to photograph a map on display in the Arthur H. Robinson Map Library, interacting with both old and new Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in one moment. (Photos by Sarah Morton)

Up on the third floor of Science Hall, worlds wait to be discovered. Hundreds of thousands of maps, photographs and other geographic materials lie within the shelves of pale blue storage units, while framed maps line the walls and globes big and small sit atop tables.

This space, the Arthur H. Robinson Map Library, is one of several important sites within the Department of Geography that reflects the incredible impact of a cartographer and longtime faculty member.

On November 11, the geography department kept the doors of the library open to alumni and guests in a special “Science Hall After Dark” event to celebrate UW-Madison’s homecoming, as well as 70 years of map-making in the building.

The library, which was created in 1946, houses roughly 276,000 maps and the largest collection of historic aerial photographs of Wisconsin — more than 260,000 images dating back to 1937. The light-filled space has long been a resource to students and faculty, as well as the public, who turn to its contemporary collection that specializes in materials from the period following World War II.

Celebrating Cartography
On November 11, the geography department kept the doors of the library open to alumni and guests in a special “Science Hall After Dark” event to celebrate UW-Madison’s homecoming, as well as 70 years of map-making in the building.
Guests were invited to explore map displays, highlighting the history of cartography in Wisconsin and at UW-Madison.
Guests - including alumni, faculty, staff and students - mingled over maps and shared stories of the geography department and science hall.
Alumna Gail Ambrosius (B.S.'93, Cartography & Geographic Information Systems) and State Cartographer's Office staff member AJ Wortley investigate one of the maps on display. Guests enjoyed chocolates from Ambrosius' Madison-based chocolatier during the event.
Aaron Stephenson (B.A.'04, Geography; Cartography & Information Systems and M.A.'05, Environmental Monitoring) and Melanie McCalmont (M.S.'06, Geography) examine a relief map of Yosemite Valley.
UW alumni David (BBA'76 Accounting) and Constance (B.A.'77 Journalism) Beam view maps on display in the Arthur H. Robinson Map Library.

It’s no coincidence that the post-war era is when Robinson began leaving his mark at UW-Madison. 

After heading the map division for the Office of Strategic Services (the forerunner to the CIA) during World War II, and overseeing the drawing of some 5,000 maps for the military, the Canadian-born Robinson came to the geography department. He taught courses in cartography and physical geography from 1945 until his retirement in 1980.

Due to Robinson’s efforts, the department established bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in cartography and named the Map Library after him in 1982.

Robinson helped found the Cartography Laboratory in 1966, serving as its first director until 1973 and insisting that a new floor — the mezzanine level on the south wing of Science Hall — be constructed for the program, says Jaime Martindale, map and geospatial data librarian at the Map Library.

He also worked with the Wisconsin State Legislature to establish the position of State Cartographer; in 1974, Arthur L. Ziegler was appointed to the role and the Wisconsin State Cartographer’s Office officially opened.

Anyone who walks through these spaces on the third and fourth floors of Science Hall can easily recognize the influence Robinson had on the department. But those who work in geography feel him impact even more profoundly.

“All of us owe our careers to his ideas,” says Martindale. 

Cartography leads to a sweet spot

Read our Q&A with renowned Madison Chocolatier and L&S alumna Gail Ambrosius (B.S.'93, Cartography & Geographic Information Systems) and learn about how she turned a passion for geography into a business that honors where her ingredients are grown.