Map Theft, Part One — The Charm of Maps

Maps — manuscript, printed, and digital – can be found in libraries, archives, museums, and every other kind of research repository. They can also be found decorating the walls of homes and offices. As many individuals have pointed out, maps are the outcome of a basic human need by people to be able to locate them in the physical world, serving both utilitarian (such as military and Exploration) and more philosophical (including religious) needs. Cartography as a science was rather late in coming, but its deliberate progress did not restrain the production of maps for navigation, political, commercial, and other uses. As a result, maps are in personal collections, government and institutional archives, museums, and libraries, and scholarly research collections. Maps have also become highly prized aims of collectors, for their historical, monetary, and visual qualities. It is not unusual to find an antique map, original or facsimile, adorning the walls of research rooms, corporate boardrooms, and private homes.

Archivists, librarians, scientists, and scholars encounter maps in a variety of venues, from personal collections to inserts in books to Geographic Information System (GIS) databases. As a result, information professionals, such as archivists, have written about maps from a variety of administrative and other angles. Archivists have been writing about archival maps and related cartographic records for many decades, suggesting their importance as well as the challenges of preserving and managing them (see, for example, the special issue on “Cartographic Archives” in Archivaria 13 [Winter 1981-82] and Ralph E. Ehrenberg, Archives & Manuscripts: Maps and Architectural Drawings [Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1982]. The point is, professionals like archivists, librarians, and museum curators have long been interested in maps, for a wide variety of reasons, including their historical evidence, current information values, and, at times, their alluring charm.

We all have our own favorite examples and stories of the discovery of maps. When I worked at the City of Baltimore Archives I came across a variety of partial sketches and surveys that, upon further investigation, were part of a major resurveying of the City in the early nineteenth century, revealing an interesting story of political strife and compromise. None of these maps were masterpieces, but they were very revealing of life in and growth of that city in its early years (Richard J. Cox, “Trouble on the Chain Gang: City Surveying, Maps, and the Absence of Urban Planning in Baltimore, 1730-1823; With a Checklist of Maps of the Period,” Maryland Historical Magazine 81 [Spring 1986]: 8-49).. Many years later, in a project on the career of Lester J. Cappon, a pioneer archivist and documentary editor, I became interested in his work on an atlas of early American history. Building on his interest in Western history and early exploration, Cappon labored over twenty years to produce an exemplary reference that was groundbreaking in its value as a reference work (one still consulted and cited), and an amazing achievement before the use of computers in mapping (Richard J. Cox, “Lester J. Cappon, Scholarly Publishing, and the Atlas of Early American History, 1957-1976,” Journal of Scholarly Publishing 43, no. 3 [2012]: 294-321). Cappon’s work speaks volumes to the importance of maps to historians and other researchers, written at the time before the modern craze in map collecting had started.

The interest in maps as historical sources and as collectible objects can be seen in a number of recent publications. Jeffrey Brotton’s A History of the World in Twelve Maps (New York; Viking, 2012) provides a detailed set of case studies of important world maps describing their purposes, methods of construction, uses, and subsequent influence. Brotton places each map in its culture and historical moment, emphasizing the creativity and imagination that went into making the map. He gets to the essence of what makes a map so intriguing to us: “A map is simultaneously both a physical object and a graphic document, and it is both written and visual: you cannot understand a map without writing, but a map without a visual element is simply a collection of place names” (p. 5). According to him, a “map . . . is always a creative interpretation of the space it claims to represent” (p. 14). When we examine the activities of map collectors, both individual and institutional, we can begin to understand why maps with obvious mistakes and fantastic interpretations are often the most sought after. Those interested in maps as historical sources might disparage such interests, but those who truly collect and see maps as decorative objects and expressions of human ingenuity and aesthetic expressions generally possess very different interests (To understand a bit about how maps emerge as both historical sources and historical curiosities, the many books by Mark Monmonier are a good place to start).

There is, however, another reason why antique printed and manuscript maps are being more sought after, reflected in rising prices that make every custodian nervous about their care. New technological advances in mapping, most recently seen in Google Earth, have given us greater confidence in our cartographic knowledge. However, our reliance on GPS systems has also brought with it concerns about the loss of our abilities to navigate using road maps and other traditional devices, although, according to Brotton, this is not a new fear: “Similar fears have accompanied major shifts in the medium of mapmaking at various points in history, from stone through parchment and paper, to manuscript illumination, woodcut printing, copperplate engraving, lithography and computer graphics” (p. 435). Regardless of what you might think about this, it has made us more nostalgic about older forms of maps, and spurred on map collecting to a great extent. The fact that we often employ the word “mapping” to explain our efforts to carry out many of our activities reflects this importance of maps and their general appeal to help us find our way in the world or, at least, to tell a story about ourselves. For examples of the utility of maps, see Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer (San Antonio, Texas: Trinity University Press, 2004), and for how the notion of maps is used in all aspects of our professional and private lives, such as Mark Diamond, “Six Steps for Creating a ‘Super Data Map,’” Information Management 48 (September/October 2014): 28-32.

No wonder maps, of all varieties and vintages, are targets by thieves.

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