Carol Urness

Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries


The Society for the History of Discoveries honors in 2007 a person who has been an active and distinguished member of our learned society since 1964.  She was Vice President and President of SHD from 1985 through 1988. When Professor Urness retired in 2001 she was the Curator of the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota.  Following in the footsteps of her mentor, John Parker, she carved a meritorious career in teaching, scholarship, and service to her profession, her university, and to our organization.

Carol was born on April 8, 1936 in Wilmington, California.  When she was four the family moved to Lamberton, Minnesota, where she obtained her public school education.  All of her academic degrees were earned at the University of Minnesota – BA in English (1957), MA in Library Science (1960), and the Ph.D. in Russian History in 1982.  Her ongoing research in her specialty, Russian expansion across Siberia to the Pacific Ocean, for which she is an acknowledged authority, not only involved toiling in the James Ford Bell Library; she visited archives in Paris, Belfast, Copenhagen, Oxford, and London, and she also traveled to the Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia.

While she was studying for her MA in Library Science, Carol worked at the University of Minnesota Library.  She became the Assistant Curator of the James Ford Bell Library in 1964, partly as a result of her research for a historical novel about the Willoughby and Chancellor attempt to discover a Northeast Passage from England to Asia.  When John Parker retired, she replaced him in 1991 as curator, retiring in 2001. Her history and cartography courses at the University of Minnesota, especially her graduate seminar titled “Expansion of Europe,” required students to do research with historical documents, where they learned to read (and translate) early handwritten texts.  Carol has always said that the students and the books were her greatest joys. She reads French, German, Spanish, Russian, Norwegian, and Latin. In her honor, and in respect for her devotion to teaching, the Associates of the James Ford Bell Library established the Carol Urness Writing Award to be given annually to students at the university.

Carol’s first book, A Naturalist in Russia: Letters of Peter Simon Pallas to Thomas Pennant, was published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1967.  Her book, Bering’s Voyages: The Reports from Russia. A translation and edition of the writings of Gerhard Friedrich Muller (University of Alaska Press), appeared in 1986, and her dissertation, Bering’s First Expedition: A re-examination based on eighteenth-century books, maps and manuscripts (Garland Press) in 1987.  Four other works, The Olaus Magnus Map of Scandinavia, 1539 (1999), Portolan Charts (1999), Waldseemuller’s Globe and Planisphere (1999), and the Worlds of Ptolemy (2000) all were published by the James Ford Bell Library.  She has written articles for Terrae Incognitae and Mercator’s World, and has penned four chapters for books, all relating to Russian activities in the Pacific region.  From its inception, Carol served as a consultant for the Oxford Companion to World Exploration, which was published in early 2007.  She further prepared a number of articles for this important literary contribution.

Carol is presently finishing The Journal of Midshipman Chaplin: A Record of Bering’s First Kamchatka Expedition, to be published by Aarhus University Press in Denmark, and she collaborated on a book for the Minnesota Historical Society.  It is Minnesota on the Map: A Historical Atlas, to be published in late 2008.  One of Carol’s most meaningful efforts was A Book for Jack, a sensitive paean to John Parker that she edited, and which was published in 1991 by the Associates of the James Ford Bell Library on the occasion of his retirement.

In addition to her serving as its President, The Society for the History of Discoveries is especially beholden to Carol Urness for her single-handed efforts in making the prize essay contest an important element in the society’s mission.  As chair of the Annual Prize Essay Committee since it began in 1992, she has nurtured student scholarship related to the history of cartography and to exploration and discovery, and saw to the publication of meritorious essays in our journal, Terrae Incognitae.  Over the years, she provided advice for winners of the competition who came from the ranks of geography, history, anthropology, archaeology, and museology.

Carol has remained remarkably busy since she retired.  She needed space for her book collection, so she found a place in a small commercial center in northeast Minneapolis, and became the proprietor of Corner Books, which also fronts as her office.  She quickly was known as the “unwilling bookseller,” and her bookshop became a tourist destination. She says that she does not want to sell any of her volumes, and is sad when she does. She once remarked “that a woman came in to my store and bought three books, and I almost had a stroke.”  For those who know Carol, this is not hyperbole.

Our honoree has been an avid naturalist for fifty years.  She has birded in Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Venezuela.  When she was doing research in the old Soviet Union, she found time to be a birder. Her favorite place to observe avian friends, however, is on the land she owns in Isanti County in Minnesota.  Not only have birds been of interest to her, she has branched out to study ferns, mushrooms, trees, and wildflowers. Her current passion is dragonflies. As a natural progression of her interests, Carol has taken up a new hobby – watercolor painting.

For her years of distinguished and invaluable work as Curator of the James Ford Bell Library, her important scholarly contributions to understanding Russian activities in 18th-century East Asia and the Pacific, her special teaching abilities at the University of Minnesota, and her tireless efforts on behalf of the Society for the History of Discoveries, as Vice President and President, and especially as the long-time chairman of the Student Prize Essay Committee, we honor Carol Urness and name her FSHD – Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries.

Forty-eighth Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Chicago, Illinois
November 12, 2007

Prepared by Sanford H. Bederman
(Photo of Carol Urness by Ed Dahl, Newfoundland, 1997)



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