The Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building houses the largest collection of maps in the world. Their Geography & Map Division manages over 5.5 million maps, 80,000 atlases (including a significant collection of Ptolemy atlases), 500 globes, reference materials, raised relief models, and a huge digital library. Their collections cover the world, with a special focus on the United States. The collection can be partially viewed online and by visiting the Geography & Map Reading Room or the exhibits in the Thomas Jefferson Building.
One of the most notable items is the only surviving copy of Martin Waldseemüller’s world map from 1507. It is the first map to depict the Western Hemisphere as a distinct continent, surrounded by water and not connected to Asia. It also marks the first time “America” was used on a map to name the land mass, earning it the nickname “America’s Birth Certificate.”
Several Caribbean Islands appear in detail, along with a recognizable, if too thin, depiction of South America. A small piece of North America is visible. The Pacific Ocean is depicted for the first time—before Balboa or Magellan charted its waters. It also shows the rest of the “known” (by Europeans) world with varying degrees of accuracy.
Waldseemüller knew his map would be shocking and controversial at a time when the existence of entire “new” continents was still not accepted. He begged viewers, “This one request we have to make, that those who are inexperienced and unacquainted with cosmography shall not condemn all this before they have learned that it will surely be clearer to them later on, when they have come to understand it.”
The map is made of 12 separate sheets—when connected it measures 4.5 by 8 feet (1.4 by 2.4 meters). It is part of the permanent collection of the Library of Congress. The entire Library of Congress is worth visiting but the map is one-of-a-kind.
Know Before You Go
You must reserve a free timed-entry pass from the Library of Congress website. Passes are released 30 days ahead. A limited number of same-day passes is released at 9am each morning. The pass is free and allows access to all public exhibits and spaces. The Library is closed Sunday and Monday.
The closest Metro stop is Capitol South (Orange/Blue/Silver Lines) - Exit station using the main exit, walk approximately two blocks north on First Street SE.