Barbara McCorkle


Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries


When the Society for the History of Discoveries was founded in 1960, it was hoped that the society would attract, among others, librarians and curators responsible for the source materials for this field, but few could have imagined the breadth and scope of contributions made by the person we honor today.  There are curators and librarians who quietly and competently look after their materials, and there are those who achieve that and then succeed in making outstanding contributions to the wider community. Had the founders of the SHD had an ideal person in mind, it is hard to imagine it might have been anyone more qualified and distinguished than Barbara McCorkle.

Barbara became aware of the society in its early years when she accompanied her husband, Ozzie Backus, a professor of history at the University of Kansas, to several SHD annual meetings.  In 1972, Ozzie and Tom Smith were in charge of local arrangements for that year’s annual meeting in Lawrence; upon Ozzie’s untimely death, Barbara assumed his responsibilities and soon became a society member.  Since then, she has attended more of the society’s annual meetings than all but a handful of living members, and the success and vibrancy of the society over the past three decades owes much to her outstanding service.

Those of you who were SHD members in the 1980s will especially remember the friendly and engaging annual newsletters, a vehicle of communication she revitalized, making us all aware of one another’s activities and making new members immediately feel that they were part of the family as news of their own activities was circulated and responded to by others.  Barbara served as Secretary-Treasurer for twelve years, from 1979 to 1990.

During her tenure in that position, she also quietly undertook many important tasks that most of us would not have been aware of, such as the “automation” of the entire membership “database” —all on 5-by-8-inch cards when she began; all “in the computer” when she finished.  This happened around 1982, thanks partly to her early ownership of an IBM personal computer.

Barbara has also contributed to the success of the SHD by chairing sessions at the annual meetings, serving on the Student Essay Prize jury, as well as various behind-the scenes activities such as the important negotiations required to move the society’s journal in 1990 to an arrangement that gave us more direct control of the publication (and saved us money).  She had already been involved in high finance on the society’s behalf when she put some of the society’s funds into a money-market account, and opened an offshore bank account with Barclay’s Bank in London.

For sixteen years, from 1979 to 1995, Barbara compiled the annual “Recent Literature in Discovery History” for the society’s journal, Terrae Incognitae.  Until that time, the journal had carried book reviews and a section titled “Other Publications Received.”  This essential bibliographical aid continues to be published annually in Terrae Incognitae.

Barbara clearly had much room in her professional agenda for the society, but her contributions ranged well beyond that.  Her distinguished career as a map curator at Yale University was recognized by the Honors Award of the Map and Geography Round Table (MAGERT), American Library Association in 2000 for outstanding lifetime achievement and major contributions to map librarianship.

From its inception in 1988 until 1994, Barbara edited the newsletter of the International Society of Curators of Early Maps, bringing to this task the same flair she had shown with the SHD newsletter. She was active in several map-related organizations (the American Library Association and the Special Libraries Association among them).  She also taught courses on such topics as the history of cartography and on the use of maps as historical documents (the last one as recently as May 2003 at the Beinecke Library at Yale University).

Undoubtedly the single work with which she made her greatest mark and for which she will be best and longest remembered (and repeatedly thanked) is her scholarly carto-bibliography—only in its size and beauty comparable to a coffee-table volume—titled The Printed Maps of New England, 1513-1800 and published by the John Carter Brown Library in 2001.

Her publications include a catalogue, titled America Emergent, to accompany an exhibition of maps and atlases in honor of Alexander O. Vietor (her predecessor at Yale); articles in The Map Collector, Mercator’s World, and Meridian; a major chapter in Mapping Boston (1999); an index to Map Collector’s Circle; and many shorter articles, book reviews and conference and other reports.  Although she was always enthusiastic and positive about her work as a map curator, her retirement from Yale University in 1993 must have been a liberating event in some sense since the rate of her publications rose markedly thereafter.

In addition to the position she held as the Curator of the Map Collection at Yale University from 1979 to 1993, Barbara was also the curator of historical maps at the University of Kansas in Lawrence (1968-1974), and a reference librarian at Purdue University (1976-1979).

Barbara was born on 9 September 1920 in New York City and spent her childhood, through high school, in New Haven, Connecticut.  She received her B.A., cum laude, from Hunter College, New York City, in 1942 (Phi Beta Kappa), and, later in life, in 1968, earned her M.L.S. from Emporia State Teachers College (now Kansas State University at Emporia).  Throughout the years from 1950 to 1970, she continued her education by completing courses in geology, English literature, Russian language and literature, and Polish language at the University of Kansas.

Since 1977, Barbara has been working on a comprehensive carto-bibliography of the maps in eighteenth-century English and American geographies, with financial support from several agencies.  Her research has taken her to more libraries in North America and overseas than many of us may ever visit in our lifetimes.

Modest as always about her professional achievements, Barbara once wrote in an e-mail: “In my opinion, my greatest accomplishment is to have contributed six wonderful children to the world!”

For her unfailing support and long-time vital service to the Society for the History of Discoveries, her contributions to map curatorship, carto-bibliographical studies, to the history of cartography, and for her friendship and generosity, we honor Barbara Backus McCorkle and name her FSHD — Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries.

Forty-fifth Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Cody, Wyoming
September 10, 2004

Prepared by Ed Dahl
(Photo of Barbara McCorkle by Ed Dahl, 1988)


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