Walter W. Ristow

1908 - 2006

Walter W. Ristow, former Chief of the Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, Washington, died on April 3, 2006. Ristow, born April 20, 1908, in La Crosse, Wisconsin, devoted his life to the study of cartography, the history of cartography, map librarianship, and map collecting.   He received his formal training in geography from the University of Wisconsin, Madison (BA 1931), a master’s in geography and geology from Oberlin College, Ohio (1933) and a PhD in geography from Clark University (1937).

Upon completion of his graduate work, Ristow began his long career in map librarianship as he served as head and later Chief of the Map Division of the New York Public Library (1937-46). He also served with the Military Intelligence Service as a wartime map analyst from 1941-44. He moved to Washington in 1946 to begin his thirty-two year career in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress (1946-78). He served as Assistant Chief from 1946-68 and Chief from 1968-78. After retirement he was named Honorary Consultant in the History of American Cartography at the Library of Congress (1978-87).

Ristow devoted substantial energies to the scholarly organizations in his field. He served as Secretary of the Association of American Geographers 1949-50 and also held positions as editor, consulting editor, and advisory editor for several scholarly journals, including the Canadian CartographerImago MundiActa Cartographica, and The Map Collector.  He was as member, vice chairman (1954-57), and chairman (1957-59) of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.

Walter Ristow was a prolific writer with a long list of publications prepared between 1933 and the late 1980s. Among his most noteworthy contributions were The Emergence of Maps in Libraries (1980), the prized American Maps and Mapmakers; Commercial Cartography in the Nineteenth Century (1985), (with R.A. Skelton) Nautical Charts on Vellum in the Library of Congress (1977), the scholarly commentary to the facsimile of A Survey of the Roads of the United States of America in 1789 by Christopher Colles (1960),(editor of) A la Carte; Selected papers on maps and atlases (1972), Marketing Maps of the United States (1951, 1952, and 1958), and Aviation Cartography (1956, 1957, 1960).

During his direction of the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, he oversaw the development of machine readable cataloging for cartographic objects (MARC maps). He was presented the Distinguished Service Award by the Library of Congress in 1978. During his career he received honors from the Special Libraries Association, the ACSM, and the AAG. Since 1994, the AAG Cartography Specialty Group has offered the Dr. Walter W. Ristow Prize in the History of Cartography, in recognition of academic achievement in the history of cartography or map librarianship

Following his retirement, additional honors were named in his honor, including the Walter W. Ristow Endowment Fund of the Library of Congress (for the advancement of understanding of the Geography and Map Division Collections and American Cartography) established in 1998, and the Ristow Prize of the Washington Map Society, presented annually to the most outstanding submission on the history of cartography.

Walter W. Ristow (Necrology). 2006. AAG Newsletter 41(6): 16.