Ralph E. Ehrenberg

Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries


This year’s honoree for Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries, Ralph Ehrenberg, not only is an internationally acclaimed scholar, but was an exemplary archivist and administrator at two of the world’s most important cartographic collections — the National Archives and the Library of Congress.  Ralph has also authored, co-authored, or edited more than a dozen books and monographs as well as numerous essays, articles, exhibition catalogs, and bibliographies devoted to the history of cartography and geographical exploration. It is no exaggeration to say that our honoree has assisted and facilitated the research of just about every cartographic scholar of our era, and few individuals can rival his enthusiastic, selfless efforts to educate the public about the historical significance and inherent value of maps and cartographic records.

Encouraged by his mentor and friend Herman R. Friis, then Director of the National Archive’s Polar Archives and SHD’s fifth president, Ralph became a member of the society shortly after he joined the National Archives’ staff in 1966.  During the ensuing years, he has served wherever needed to promote and advance the goals and objectives of the Society: as Secretary-Treasurer, Council Member; Vice-President, President, and Program Chair. Who can forget the Society’s 45th annual meeting held at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, with its spectacular field trips to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park?  In addition, Ralph has been a long-time member of the editorial board of Terrae Incognitae, the Society’s scholarly publication.

Throughout his distinguished career, Ralph has been at the forefront of efforts to make resources relating to the study of geographical exploration and discovery more accessible to the public and to the scholarly community through finding aids, microfilm reproductions, and most recently digital imagery.  For example, at the National Archives in 1973 he co-organized and chaired the first national conference on historical geography held in the United States. Howard University Press later published the papers from this conference under the title Pattern and Process: Research in Historical Geography.  Concurrently, he initiated the preparation and publication of a series of cartographic reference aids, including one that he wrote that focused on geographical exploration and mapping in the 19th century.  Similarly, he was the primary author of the illustrated Guide to Maps and Charts in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress which was published in 1996 and is now available on the Internet.

While at the National Archives, Ralph introduced an innovative 105mm microfilm program for preserving and reproducing historical maps.  The program was adopted by the National Archives of Canada, the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, and the Library of Congress, and subsequently became the national standard through the efforts of the National Microfilm Association’s Committee on Map Microfilming Standards, which Ralph chaired from 1975 to 1985.

With the advent of the Internet, Ralph established a state-of-the art electronic map scanning program in the Geography and Map Division to provide core historical map collections to the public on the Library’s webpage.  He also began the preparation of electronic maps for Congress through a Geographic Information Systems facility he established at the Library. To supplement Congressional appropriated funds for the acquisition of rare maps, the publication of bibliographies and newsletters, and the creation of the electronic scanning program and GIS facility, he established two national Geography and Map Division support groups — the Philip Lee Phillips Society and the Center for Geographic Information.  Thanks to these initiatives by Ralph and the funds and equipment subsequently raised and donated, historians and other researchers can now download thousands of rare cartographic treasures from the Library’s website, such as William Clark’s 1805 manuscript map of the American West. In addition, visitors to the Library’s Great Hall can view Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 majestic world map of discovery and exploration, whose acquisition Ralph initiated.

As part of his effort to bring the cartographic treasures of the National Archives and Library of Congress to public attention, Ralph has been an avid supporter and proponent of exhibits. Whenever someone had an exhibit idea that could include maps or geography that person’s first call was to Ralph, and invariably he became a member of the planning team, which meant an enormous commitment of his time.  Nonetheless, Ralph curated or assisted with several of the most significant exhibits about exploration and discovery ever mounted at the National Archives, Library of Congress, and Smithsonian Institution, ranging from the mapping of the North American Plains to the history of geologic mapping. My favorite, as you might guess, was “Magnificent Voyagers: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842,” a three-year traveling exhibition that opened at the Smithsonian Institution in 1985, for which Ralph was the inspiration for a stunning wall of charts created by the great Pacific explorer Charles Wilkes.

Ralph is proud of his small-town origins and of Minnesota, where he was born on October 14, 1937.  He grew up in the rural community of Waconia where he attended public school and spent summers on the nearby farms of relatives. It was family stories about Indian visitors at the end of the nineteenth century and the ancient Indian mounds that then dotted the landscape of Carver County that sparked Ralph’s early interest in history.
Following high school in 1955, Ralph enlisted in the U. S. Navy, as he says, “to film the world.”  After serving as an aerial photographer at the U. S. Naval Air Station in Atsugi, Japan and on board the aircraft carrier USS Philippine Sea (CV-47), he attended the University of Minnesota, where he earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees in history and geography.

While working part-time at the University of Minnesota Hospitals, our former Navy enlisted man met Theresa Nelson, the daughter of a Navy captain.  Ralph and Tess were married in the Moravian Church in Waconia on June 15, 1963. Their union produced three children — Philip, Diane, and Lisa — and six grandchildren.  Because Tess has always been at Ralph’s side, whether it is leading study tours, welcoming national and international visitors into their home, or assisting him with his professional commitments, she is as well known to society members as our honoree.

Somehow, despite all his domestic and professional obligations, Ralph found time to publish several monumental works.  These include The Mapping of America ( with Seymour Schwartz), the acclaimed cartographic survey of North America, now in its second printing; Scholars’ Guide to Washington, D.C. for Cartography and Remote Sensing Imagery, published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1987, and Mapping the World, recently published by the National Geographic Society.  As Barbara McCorkle, herself a Society Fellow, wrote in her review, the maps described in the book were drawn from 24 institutions in 9 countries, “reflecting a mind thoroughly familiar with cartographic materials and sources.  The National Geographic Society may have conceived of the idea for this monumental work, but it was Ralph Ehrenberg who carried it out brilliantly.”

Ralph, of course, has received many honors and awards, including a month-long Scholar in Residence appointment at the State Library of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.  In addition to his work with the Society for the History of Discoveries, Ralph has also served on several major advisory councils and boards of related professional organizations, including the International Map Collector’s Society, the United States Board on Geographic Names, which he chaired for one term, and the Federal Geographic Data Committee.  He is a founding member of the Washington Map Society, and served two terms as its President. Ralph also established the archives of the Association of American Geographers in 1968 and co-founded the Association’s Committee on Archives and Association History.

For his years of dedicated and enthusiastic service to our Society, for his outstanding and continuing contributions to the field of cartography, and for his excellence as a scholar, cartographer, and educator we are pleased to honor Ralph E. Ehrenberg by naming him the 2008 Fellow of the Society for the History of Discoveries.

Forty-ninth Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Discoveries
Arlington, Texas
October 6, 2008

Prepared by Herman J. Viola
(Photo by Diane Ehrenberg Prinz)


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