Archivist to Discuss Implications, Conservation of Evanston’s Oldest Printed Map at Science Cafe


Evanston resident Kevin Leonard is Northwestern University’s Archivist, responsible for collecting and preserving the primary source documents that help us understand our past. Even in this digital age, he is always on the lookout for material to safeguard so future generations can understand our present.

Not long ago, a colleague presented the Archives with a tattered and moldy map that turned out to be rare the oldest printed map of Evanston. Leonard and University Library Conservator Susan Russick are holding a Science Cafe about how the map was saved from near ruin, and what it tells us about our history. The event takes place on Wednesday, January 20, at the Firehouse Grill in Evanston from 6:15 to 7:45 pm. 

We asked Leonard to preview some of the stories the map.  But trust us – there are lots more!

A digitized image of Evanston's oldest printed mapA digitized image of Evanston's oldest printed mapHow old is the map and how did you come by it?
It’s hard to say for sure when it was printed, but certainly somewhere between 1869 and 1876. Russell Maylone, then curator of the University’s Special Collections, stumbled upon it in George Ritzlin's map shop on Central Street. Russell picked it up for us, thinking it looked interesting and that Archives might want it. It came to us in a plastic bag, badly deteriorated and crumbling into flakes and pieces.

How did you put the crumbs back together?
The chemistry of paper restoration is complex, but the staff of our conservation laboratory is amazing in their abilities. Everyone there worked on it to some degree, and Susan Russick did a fantastic job on its restoration. There’s a wonderful short video chronicling the restoration of the map that people can watch by going to the NU Newscenter website here.

Why is the map significant?
One reason is that it helps unlock property histories, and it illuminates local history. The map provides a layout of the town with block numbers and lot numbers that we can correlate with other historical documents. This matters because block and lot numbers were repeated – each lot doesn’t have a unique set of numbers. With this map we can pinpoint streets with the block and lot numbers and then check other documents like directories or University real estate sales records to see who leased or bought that property. 

Why would University real estate records be useful?
Because Evanston and Northwestern grew up together, and over the years the University has returned to the tax rolls much of its original land not used for educational purposes. In fact, in the beginning, the University owned much of the land in what is now Evanston. At first, at about the time the map was printed, the University had three principal ways of raising funds to get the school started. Renting and subdividing its real property; selling perpetual scholarships for $100 each to families so their sons, and later daughters too, could one day go to college tuition-free; and accepting the donations of prominent – usually Methodist – benefactors. Northwestern is now a secular institution, but like most schools its age, it was started by religious leaders.

What else does the map tell us about the history of our town?
Well, the visual representation makes quite plain that modern-day Evanston was once three separate towns. That’s one reason we have three train stops. I also like the flavor provided by the ads around the edges of the map. It’s a realtor’s map, so the ads show the names of people who were builders and surveyors and such. You can think about the families living here and moving here. And in a way, the map tells us something about the current residents of Evanston, too; since we digitized the map and made it available on online, thousands of people have looked at it and used it to learn about the history of their homes and town.

Where can people see the map?
The physical map is held by the Northwestern University Archives. Its digitized version is available at on the library's website here. Digitization allows better protection of the original map and the quality of the image is really quite good. 

Science Cafes are free and open to the public.  For more information, visit our events section here, or the Science Cafe website.


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