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Rising to the First: An Interview with Dr. Paulette Hasier

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This is a special Women’s History Month guest post by Giselle Aviles, the 2019 Archaeological Research Associate in the Geography and Map Division. Giselle interviews Dr. Paulette Hasier, the first woman to serve as Chief of the Geography and Map Division since it was founded late in the nineteenth century.

On one of my breaks from working with the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Early Americas, housed in the Geography and Map Division of the Library, I began to read the Women’s History Month website about many of the great women who, through the years, broke social barriers in many fields and I couldn’t help but think of the chief of the division in which I am doing my fellowship, Dr. Paulette Marie Hasier. The Geography and Map Division was created in 1897 and Dr. Hasier is the ninth person and first woman named chief of the division. Dr. Hasier is originally from Chicago, completed a joint Master’s Degree program in Library Science and a Master’s in History from the University of North Texas, a doctorate in Transatlantic History from the University of Texas in Arlington, and possesses 24 years in the library field. I thought that the occasion of Women’s History Month was the perfect time to discover more about her story and how she came to the Library of Congress.

Dr. Hasier, how did you get into the field of geography and maps?

My passion for maps goes back to my Ph.D. studies. When I met with my advisor we talked about what we would like to do in terms of research, how we felt we could match what I do as a librarian with what I would do as an historian. We decided on a carto-bibliography of the central portion of the United States, specifically on Illinois Country. It was an in-depth analysis of the maps that were produced at the time, in this case primarily French mapping. French cartographers were at their height during this period, measuring land,and  applying the latest surveying technology to maps. Amazingly enough, none of the cartographers I studied ever came to the United States; this was all done through proxy. They had relationships with navigators, sea captains, and they relied on people in religious orders, for example Jesuits that were on the ground and who were making contact and relationships with the indigenous population. It was basically comparative cartography. Looking at  how through time maps changed, noting their differences, what was on a certain map, why they were there, why things weren’t on other maps, how the cartographer was getting the information, their influences. Some of them were considered royal cartographers for Louis XIV.

Dr. Paulette Hasier, Chief of the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress in front of Waldseemuller’s 1507 World Map.

What do you like about maps?

The fact that there is a world of information contained on every map! For many years, maps were not seen as historical documents and I think the strength of a map as a primary source is always that it is a combination of factual and cultural information. I did research on comparative cartography of 16th and 17th century French maps, so as a student I worked with purely analog maps. Now with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) you can use geospatial data, combined with these historical sources, to analyze boundaries, to spatially construct new histories and even for policy-making decisions. Therefore, I see the maps in our collection as the true world of big data. We have so much data in this collection, of some six million maps, that is just begging to get out and be used by scholars, policy makers and the general public for purposes we have yet to imagine. Today, this unexplored intellectual territory combining history and spatial analysis is what really excites me about maps.

Tell us about challenges that you confronted on your career path.

You give up a lot if you want to go far in academia, if you decide to pursue a Ph.D., and if you want to become an expert in your field. So one of the things I always think about is the challenge of tempering a family life, relationships, and how much of your time do you spend studying toward what you believe is a worthy career.  It’s a really hard line and you make a lot of sacrifices. It may sound silly, but you give up going to birthday parties, 4th of July picnics, and of course there were times when I was getting only four or five hours of sleep. Like many people, while I was studying, I was working a full-time job, going to night school, coming home, doing readings, and going back to work the next day. I probably looked like a zombie! During my lunch breaks, I was reading 400 page tomes of some historical material, but nobody ever told me that I couldn’t do that, and I never felt I couldn’t do it. So I think you have to love what you do, you have to have a passion for what you do. So don’t go into something half-hearted, don’t go into something that’s just going to become a job, you really need to be passionate about it because it may take a lot out of you for a while.  For me, I am incredibly passionate about being a librarian. I love that I had the opportunity to go further in my career and get a Ph.D. and work with historians, but in my heart, I love being a librarian because it’s all about information, resources, it’s about sharing.

That’s what the Library of Congress is all about! So, now can you tell us an anecdote or a story of your work in the Library?

Oh, this one comes to my mind right away! I was working at the Library for about two weeks and I received an email from our communications office and they say to me that some reporters are coming to do a story for an online magazine called Great Big Story, who want to do a piece about the Library and its divisions. Part of the story requires them to film in our vaults…so on that day they have me showing and moving globes around, talking about the collection, and about having the biggest cartographic collection in the world. The next day they needed to come back and do some additional filming of me, but unfortunately I was not available. My stand in, it turned out, was Mike Buscher, who was the head of the reading room at the time. The crew filmed him opening some of the hundreds of map drawers we have in the division and taking maps and folders out.  When the final cut came out, they show me talking about the globes and maps but it was Mike’s hands taking the objects out of the drawers! It is just an example of the kind of fun thing that happens all the time around here. There is such an interest among the general public in what we do here at the library, and it is truly rewarding to be an ambassador for the collections.

Part of the Story Map, Maps That Changed Our World. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

What accomplishments have you and your team achieved?

This week is the year anniversary of the publication of the first of our Story Maps. I feel like this has been an incredible accomplishment that couldn’t have been done without a lot of people putting a lot of work into it. We received so much support from our IT department, helping with the software and back end programming and engineering issues, from our subject-matter experts throughout the library who provided content and my staff, doing briefings, writing policy, teaching the platform, and creating something that I believe will have some longevity. I feel this has been kind of a high point of my career here. I feel we wanted to do something that was going to go beyond geography and maps in their traditional formats and be something that would become a part of the culture of the library. A year later I feel this has been a significant accomplishment. There is a rich benefit in doing something like a Story Map. We have so many knowledgeable people at the library, that know the collections, how to work with them, and what we are doing is trying to create a kind of, as John Hessler would say, digital humanities culture around the collections. We are trying to get people to understand how they can take that expertise and put it out there for anyone, not just the folks that happen to be at the library. I think this was a great way of using geospatial data and software without the participants needing to have knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the technology and of programming languages. I don’t take credit for what my staff do; I am hopefully helping them be the best they can be. So that’s what I want to bring to this position. If that inspires someone to be a geographer or a cartographer, or to be a librarian, or to work on these collections, that’s a great accomplishment for me.

Story Maps Page at the Library of Congress

In closing, how do you feel about being the first woman named Chief of the Geography and Map Division?

That’s interesting because I didn’t see that way when I first arrived and I never thought about being the first chief of the division as a woman. It was people from the outside who really brought it to my attention. I had to think about it for a second because I thought, that’s a heavy burden to take on, being the first of anything is an incredible heavy burden. Doing my actual job however I see as gender-neutral. The fact that I’m actually being put up as an inspiration, as a change maker, and when I think of the challenges women face in any field today, it takes me back to the reflection of knowing your passion. It’s important to do things that will make you happy in your career, don’t let anyone or any institution, or any person, or anyone for that matter, tell you that you can’t do it because you can. That’s really what I think makes it so important about what I do here. It is not about being the first woman, it’s about being a woman and being impassioned about what you do and rising to the occasion of being the first.


Comments (4)

  1. “the strength of a map as a primary source is always that it is a combination of factual and cultural information” – yes! Thanks for the delightful interview, and thanks for continuing to do meaningful work well.

  2. The Story Maps link from the illustration is broken.

    • Thank you for your comment Jay. It appears that the link is working using Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome but not working with the Internet Explorer browser. You can try the link from our main story map page here:

  3. This is inspiring! I know Naomi Heiser at the LOC. Would you consider me interviewing you for my GeoInspirations Column in Directions Magazine as a podcast? For 5 years it has featured inspiring geo-people. Thank you for considering.

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