About the WMS & FAQ's

About The Washington Map Society

Founded in 1979, The Washington Map Society is a United States based organization supporting map collecting, and the history, science and art of cartography. The Society (or WMS) has about 400 members drawn from throughout the United States and around the world. About 60% live outside the Washington DC, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia radius, confirming the importance of our journal,

Membership gives the Portolan, the WMS E-newsletter, on-line videos of our meetings, on-line access to the entire Portolan archive in .pdf format, and additional features such as private messaging between members.  Digital only membership is available. 

WMS advances its goals by convening periodic speaker events, organizing field trips, publishing a cartographic journal (The Portolan) three times yearly, and by annually sponsoring the Ristow Prize competition recognizing research achievement in cartographic history.

Our Mission:  The Washington Map Society supports and promotes map collecting, cartography, and the study of cartographic history.

We support the mission through meetings, the WMS journal The Portolan, Facebook, and the website.

Underlying this is our conviction that maps are among the most indispensable works in human history. Since earliest days, men have sought methods to make accurate maps, struggling with our earth's complex science and geography. Good mapping was a highly technical, intellectual challenge to ancient man, and it still is today. It often speaks to us about the map's long-ago, forgotten maker, his or her skill, devotion, craft and care. At its very finest, mapping reflects some of the world's most notable works of art.

Our Organization and Membership. WMS is a US non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization administered by a voluntary, unpaid Board of Directors and officer team.

Membership is open to any individual or organization having an interest in maps. Current WMS membership includes collectors, professional cartographers, map historians, galleries, map dealers, surveyors, archives, libraries and universities from all over the world. Our members are widely dispersed among 36 States, the District of Columbia and some 21 other countries; also among WMS members are some 40 national, private and university libraries.

While there is no formal affiliation with the Library of Congress, most of the Society's lecture meetings are held in the Geography and Map Division reading room at the Library's Madison Building.

Frequently Asked Questions:

What is the Washington Map Society?
The Washington Map Society, located in Washington, DC, is one of the premier map societies in the world. It began in 1979 as a small, informal group interested in cartography, cartographic history, and collecting maps. Since then it has expanded its interests to include modern cartographic concerns. Its membership is now approaching 400, but it has retained the personal feel of a small informal group.

Who can join the Washington Map Society?
Membership is open to anyone interested in maps, and our members come from all walks of life. Maps have an appeal which extends well beyond those who work with them, and many members have no professional connection to cartography. For others, maps have played a central role. Some are/were academics, archivists, librarians, or cartographers, or served in a diplomatic, military, or intelligence capacity. Whatever your background, you'll find a place in the WMS.

What are the benefits of membership in the Washington Map Society?
You can attend interesting lectures; learn about and from map collectors, dealers, and professionals; take behind-the-scene tours of public and private collections and exhibits; learn about resources at the Library of Congress and elsewhere; receive our journal and membership directory; and support worthwhile cartographic projects, such as the Ristow Prize.

What is the Society journal?
We are very proud of our journal, The Portolan. Published three times a year, recent editions exceed 80 pages and  feature research articles, accounts of speakers' presentations, book reviews, a list of recent cartographic writing, and news from the world of map collecting and study. It further contains WMS news, a schedule of events, openings of events and exhibits, useful web sites, etc.  Fifty five institutions subscribe to The Portolan, including twelve national libraries, (e.g., the British Library, Cambridge University, Boston Public Library, National Library of New Zealand, the Bibliothèque nationale de France) and the libraries of Yale, Harvard, Brown, and other fine US and international schools. Click HERE for the Portolan page and a list of schools and libraries where back issues may be read.  On the same page you can read some sample articles.

How is the Washington Map Society run?
The WMS is an all-volunteer society and has no paid employees. A board of officers and directors are nominated by a committee composed of non-board members. WMS members interested in serving on the board should make this known to the nominations committee. Elections are held at the annual business meeting each spring. A president, vice-president, secretary, and treasurer are elected by name. By custom, the vice-president acts as Program Chairman. The previous year's president is automatically a board member. Appointed by the board are the journal editor, membership chair, Ristow Prize chair, and other portfolios as needed.

What is the Ristow Prize?
Since 1994 the Society has offered the prestigious and highly competitive Ristow Prize to an outstanding academic research paper in the fields of cartographic history. It honors Walter W. Ristow, one of America's preeminent cartographic historians, former Chief of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, and the Society's founding president. The winner (who have come from many countries) receives a $1,000. prize and his article is published in The Portolan.  Sometimes other outstanding entries are published in The Portolan as well.

When and where does the Society meet?
The Society holds eight or nine meetings each year between September and May. Most meetings are held in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress in the Madison Building on Capitol Hill. Meetings are scheduled around the speaker's availability and begin at 5 PM, usually on Thursday. Members often arrive early to socialize or to look at maps related to the night's presentation, laid out by the Library of Congress staff. The speaker is the centerpiece of the meeting. There may be some brief announcements but no business meeting as such until the April meeting. The speaker's portion usually lasts about an hour, plus questions. We are done by 6:30 or soon after. Our annual dinner is held in May each year at a restaurant or club in the DC area featuring a social hour, dinner, and after-dinner address by an invited speaker.

Who speaks at meetings and what do they talk about?
Our speakers are drawn from many sources. Some are international figures in cartography, such as Norman J.W. Thrower, the late David Woodward, Alice Hudson, Ralph Ehrenberg, Rennie Short, Max Edelsen, Matthew Edney, Mark Monmonier, and Dennis Reinhartz. Another category is recently published authors who discuss their work. Other speakers are drawn from the many academics who come to the Library of Congress to do research. Another rich source is the Washington Map Society itself, as many members are respected authorities in their fields. Indeed, several of the five "international figures" cited above are Society members.

It's hard to summarize the topics because the variety is so great. Talks on regions and periods are very popular, such as the critical first decades of African cartography, or the early cartography of Canada. Others focus on mapmakers, such as Herman Moll, Civil War battlefield mapmakers, or early women in cartography. Some talks explore specific maps, such as a controversial early map of the Hudson's Bay area. Some discuss types of cartography, e.g., early aviation maps. Commercial topics are addressed, such as changes in the world of commercial cartography, or an insider's look at running a gallery selling antique maps. Still others address technical subjects, such as land use mapping, satellite surveys, etc. These examples hardly cover the diversity of topics but give an idea of their breadth and depth.

Are there other Society activities?
We usually have one or two field trips per year. Some feature a conference or exhibit such as a symposium at the Library of Virginia on the cartographic history of the state. Other trips feature more permanent topics, such as old atlases at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, or a trip to visit the collection of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Members are also invited to occasional events of cartographic interest in the DC area. These have included receptions and/or exhibit openings at the Library of Congress, various national embassies, and George Washington University. We participated in many events for the centennial celebration of the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, including a gala reception, panel discussions, and A cartographic tour of Washington, DC.

What is the Society's relationship to the Library of Congress?
There is no formal link between the Library of Congress and the Washington Map Society, but there has always been a close informal relationship between the Society and the Library's Geography and Map Division. This is a great benefit because the Division is the largest and finest map library in the world. Division employees were instrumental in the formation of our Society. We are fortunate to meet in their Reading Room at the Madison Building, where staffers often lay out maps related to the presentation from the Library's collections.

I don't live in the DC area. Is it still worthwhile to belong to the Washington Map Society?
About two thirds of our membership live outside greater Washington area. A few live in distant parts of Maryland or Virginia, but most are in about 36 other states and almost 50 individual and institutional members are outside the United States. We have individual members from 14 nations.  Thus a substantial portion of our members find it worthwhile to belong despite their distance from DC. The quality and scope of The Portolan is undoubtedly instrumental to this.

Distance ins not longer an issue as we post videos of most meetings on this site (available only to members).

There are, however, more intangible but compelling reasons to belong. There is the sense of membership in an extended cartographic family, invaluable for the map aficionado with no local contacts. Another reason is that you may someday visit Washington and the Library of Congress for research or as a tourist. If you time your visit to coincide with a meeting, you can attend an event at which you can meet interesting people and make useful contacts. Even if the timing does not work out, let the Membership Chair know in advance, and it may be possible to connect you with a local member who shares your interests.

Will I still find the Washington Map Society useful and interesting if I don't have an extensive background involving maps or cartography?
Many of our members start out exactly that way. They join simply because they have an interest in maps. It may be through an interest in history, whether general, local, or family history. Still other members find old maps to be works of art and beauty. Many begin as collectors.

Many members who began without formal cartographic backgrounds are now among our most knowledgeable members. A few current examples include physicians, art historians, engineers, physicists, attorneys, military officers, a CEO, and so on. If you have even a mild specific interest, e.g., maps of Iowa, you may already be the person in the Society who knows more about that subject than anyone else. That interest will lead to related areas, e.g., to maps of the Midwest, then to how the US was mapped, then to US cartographic history in general. Each of us in the Society has grown along a different path, and you are certain to find your own.

Are there any other reasons to join?
People who become part of the map community often remark that their peers are some of the most interesting people they have ever met. Whatever led them to their interest in maps has often also led them to go places and do things which are very much out of the ordinary and we feel our members have found this to be true as well.

How much are the dues and what do they cover?
Annual dues are currently set at $45 (postage is extra outside the United States). This covers three issues of The Portolan plus all regular meetings. There is no charge for guests. The cost of the annual dinner is extra, as are costs connected with field trips, such as transportation, admission, etc. The membership application form also contains a space for voluntary donations.

What are donations used for?
Donations are important to us for two reasons. The first is to supplement our dues. The Society strives to keep its dues as low as possible. The growth of The Portolan and the increase in layout and printing prices over the past several years have necessitated dues increases, but we want to insure that Society membership dues stays within reach of all those who want it. Donations help make that possible. Second, our non-profit designation from the Internal Revenue Service requires that we raise a portion of our income from contributions rather than dues. Even a small donation can be useful in helping us meet this need