Every institution has its institutions, and one of the Library’s is John Hessler, who will retire from the Geography and Map Division at the end of this month. He holds many titles, official and unofficial. One of the official ones is curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology & History of the Early Americas; one of the unofficial ones, playfully given to him by Librarian Carla Hayden, is the “Indiana Jones of the Library of Congress.” We will miss his erudition, energy and endless curiousity.
Tell us about your background.
I grew up in New York City and spent most of my youth wandering around the American Museum of Natural History.
When I was 9 years old, one of the geology curators who noticed I was there all the time invited me behind the scenes. Later, he took me on field trips and to the Rutgers Geology Museum, where I was the youngest member of the museum’s volunteer fossil preparers. It was there that I really learned about science and fieldwork.
While attending Villanova University as an undergrad, I became an avid mountain climber; I have always been drawn to remote and wild places. My graduate work and writing on Indigenous ethnobotany and linguistics in the Amazon reflects my love of fieldwork. Even now, I am studying the ethnobotany of the Cahuilla people in the deserts of Joshua Tree National Park.
What brought you to the Library?
I came to the Library after working for many years at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where I was part of the entomology and botany departments.
My work there was in support of field biologists — mapping species distributions for biodiversity studies. My own research centered on mapping the biogeography of high-altitude Lepidoptera in the Alps.
I was paid not as a museum employee but out of research grants. So, at 40 years old, I thought I should finally get a real job, and I came to the Library in 2002. I’m a specialist in geographic information science in G&M.
You’ve contributed to diverse projects at the Library. How did your career evolve?
I have had a great deal of support and freedom to explore at the Library. Over the course of my time here, I have somehow managed to write 12 books, including the New York Times bestseller, “Map: Exploring the World,” which combines my thoughts on the modern and historical parts of the field.
I have also written books and edited facsimile editions about some of the Library’s great masterpieces like Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius,” Columbus’ “Book of Privileges,” Henry David Thoreau’s maps and, of course, the famous 1507 world map by Martin Waldseemüller.
What achievements are you most proud of?
The thing I am most proud of is what I have been able to do with the Jay I. Kislak Collection. When I was asked to become its curator a little more than a decade ago, I was just finishing a stint as a Kluge staff fellow. Since that time, I feel that we have really put this collection on the map (no pun intended).
I was able to present classes on Mesoamerican archaeology and language, train my own docents, give lots of gallery talks, mentor 17 archaeological research fellows and sponsor scholarly conferences. Now, we are designing a new gallery that will open in early 2024.
Besides this, I was able to write a book about the collection called “Collecting for a New World: Treasures of the Early Americas.” For the first time, it tells the story of the collection’s amazing objects, books and manuscripts. This fall, my second book about the collection, “Exposing the Maya: Early Archaeological Photography in the Americas,” will publish. I dedicated it to Kislak’s memory.
What are some standout moments from your time at the Library?
Perhaps the two things that stand out the most are the acquisition of the Codex Quetzalecatzin and the recent purchase of the San Salvador Codex, yet to be digitized.
For someone who is interested in the Indigenous languages of the Americas, the ability to bring these spectacular objects into the Library collections is the standout moment. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be possible to bring two manuscripts of this rarity into our collections.
They are truly amazing pieces of Indigenous history, written in Spanish, Nahuatl and Mixtec hieroglyphs. The purchase of these manuscripts was, of course, not exclusively by me. G&M’s acquisitions specialist, Robert Morris, with whom I have worked with on numerous additions to the collections, first brought both of them to my attention. We worked closely with Library management to acquire these priceless objects.
What’s next for you?
In the coming months, I will be relocating to Nice, on the French Riviera, and I will also continue my teaching at Johns Hopkins University, where I have been on the faculty for more than a decade. I will also continue my teaching in the summer at Sorbonne Université in Paris.
Besides that, I have lots of travel in the coming months and will carry on with my writing for Alpinist Magazine, where I have been a frequent contributor for many years.
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