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John A. Wolter

John Wolter, a cartographer and librarian who served as Chief of the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress, passed away on October 22, 2015 at the age of 90.

John Amadeus Wolter was born on July 25, 1925 in St Paul, Minnesota, the eldest son of Amadeus and Marjorie Wolter. He traced his lifelong fascination with maps back to his childhood days when he collected railroad timetables and route maps.

Between 1943 and 1945, Wolter served in the Merchant Marine with the Isthmian Steamship Company, whose vessels had been requisitioned for wartime service. After the Second World War he continued with the company as a deck officer until 1950, voyaging on passenger and cargo vessels to ports in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, India, Ceylon, Indochina and Indonesia, and from New York west-bound ‘round the world.’  

After a brief stint at the College of St. Thomas, Minnesota he entered the United States Army in 1950 starting with service in the Far East during the Korean War.

In 1956 he received a bachelor’s degree in geography from the University Minnesota then spent a year in Washington, DC working as a marine transportation officer for the Military Sea Transportation Service and also undertaking postgraduate studies at Georgetown University. He then returned to the Isthmian Steamship Company for the remainder of the 1950s. During his many years at sea as a navigating officer and cargo officer he used, and made additions and corrections to, a variety of navigational charts and maps. 

Back on terra firma in 1960, Wolter returned to the University Minnesota. He served as map librarian, assistant to the director of university libraries, and as lecturer and research fellow in the geography department, as well as completing a master’s degree in library science in 1965. During this time he participated in several Library of Congress Geography and Map Division map processing projects and became familiar with the varied cartographic collections.

In 1966 took a post as assistant professor Wisconsin State University­­--River Falls, teaching geography but only stayed two years until being appointed Assistant Chief in the Library of Congress’s Geography and Map Division in 1968.

Alongside his position in Washington, DC, he carried out doctoral research in geography through the University Minnesota. His dissertation, completed in 1975, was entitled “The Emerging Discipline of Cartography.” Using bibliometric methods, he traced the history of subject bibliographies of cartography back to the nineteenth century, demonstrating the increasing independence and strength of the field of cartography. He also looked at the growth of textbooks and manuals written for students of cartography, and provision for the education and training of cartographers in the US.

In 1978 he was promoted to Chief of the Geography and Map Division, succeeding Wally Ristow, and shortly after oversaw the move of the Division from Pickett Street in Alexandria to the Madison Building on Capitol Hill. It was the first special collections division to make its home in the building and they enjoyed much local and national media coverage given the photogenic nature of maps, charts and atlases.

During his tenure as Chief of the Division, he wrote a number of reference works including an article giving “A Brief History of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, 1897-1978,” a co-edited “World Directory of Map Collections,” an article on “Geographical Libraries and Map Collections” in an encyclopedia of libraries, and a piece on “Research Tools and the Literature of Cartography.”

Because of his position, he also sat on many committees including the United States Board on Geographic Names, serving as its Chairman for some time, and the board of directors of the Philip Lee Phillips Map Society aiming to develop, enhance and promote the collections of the Geography and Map Division.

Wolter was also member of many national and international organizations that reflected his interests and specialisms. He was among the founders of the Washington Map Society which was established in 1979 and, under his suggestion, they met in the Geography and Map Division. He was a member of the Society for the History of Discoveries, serving in various executive roles including as President; the International Cartographic Association, including being the US member on its Commission on the History of Cartography; and the International Society for the History of the Map.

He joined the Association of American Geographers in 1961, receiving his 50-year membership in 2011, and he was a member of the International Geographical Union serving two spells on the United States national committee. In addition he was a member of the American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, the North American Society for Oceanic History, the Society for Nautical Research, the Naval Historical Foundation, the American Merchant Marine Veterans, the Disabled American Veterans, the Special Libraries Association, and Theta Delta Chi.

He also served on the editorial boards of Cartographica, American Cartographer, Terrae Incognitae, ACSM Bulletin, Surveying and Mapping, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, and was an editorial advisor for The Portolan and a contributing editor to Imago Mundi.

During 1989-90 he took on the additional role of Acting Director for Public Service and Collections Management before retiring from the Library of Congress in 1991. For all his contributions Wolter was recognized with a Presidential citation from the American Congress Surveying and Mapping (1985), an award from the Smithsonian Institute (1986), and a Distinguished Service Award from the Library of Congress (1992).

In retirement he did some consultancy work, continued his research, and gave occasional lectures. Post-retirement publications included three books: Progress of Discovery: Johann Georg Kohl auf den Spuren der Entdecker (1993), Images of the World: The Atlas Through History (with Ron Grim, 1996), and The Napoleonic War in the Dutch Indies: An Essay and Cartobibliography of the Minto Collection (1999).

Wolter leaves behind his wife of 59 years, Joan, and their four sons, Mark, Thomas, Matthew and David.