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The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime

By Miles Harvey. New York: Random House, 2000. xxiii, 405 pp. Ill. $24.95. ISBN 0-3755-01517.

 

Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 65, No.1, Spring/Summer 2002)

 

For archivists, The Island of Lost Maps is a dark, but by no means unfamiliar, tale. It is, in part, the story of Gilbert Bland, a man with a history of petty crime who apparently somewhat haphazardly stumbled upon the lucrative and relatively safe occupation of hacking maps out of old books in research repositories and selling them at enormous profit. Bland's chief assets in his nefarious activities were a personal demeanor that did not raise the suspicions of his victims, and the seeming inability of curatorial professionals to protect their collections.

Bland (as our author, Miles Harvey, holds) was also successful because of the effortlessness with which he set himself up as a legitimate dealer of antique maps. In this guise, he was able to ply his ill-gotten gains not only to an ignorant public but also to his somewhat more suspicious but often greedy new colleagues. In one of the more chilling passages in the book, the author quotes an anonymous map dealer to this effect: "I'm sure a number of people closed their eyes. It is very easy to do when there is a chance to make money." These dealers, the author asserts, "were driven by what antiquarians sometimes describe as ‘ a need not to know'" (p. 232).

Since Bland absolutely refused to cooperate with his would-be biographer, Harvey's insights in the Bland case were gleaned the hard way, by spending years reviewing relevant newspaper accounts, military records, court documents, criminal records, and other public documentation. He also interviewed almost all of the other principals in the case—librarians, archivists, map dealers, police, FBI officers, and judges, as well as those members of Bland's family and friends who would talk to him. Bland's story takes up about one-third of the volume. For the rest, the history of map making, map collecting and marketing, and map theft in general are interwoven, with various degrees of literary success, with Bland's capers.

For those knowledgeable about the history of crimes against cultural institutions (presently the third most lucrative international criminal activity after the drug trade and arms smuggling), there are relatively few new insights to be gleaned from Harvey's work on the subject. In reality, the epic of the "Al Capone of cartography, the greatest map thief in American history" (p. xxi) is but another example of a sad story that is all too familiar to longtime archival practitioners. It is, alas, a tale that apparently has not motivated us to reform by its periodic retelling. In his description of the institutional reactions to Bland's mutilation and thefts of valuable maps from a number of library and archival repositories, Harvey tries to balance his appreciation of the professionalism of individual archivists such as Jennifer Bryan, whose acute curatorial instincts led to Bland's denouncement, with his justifiable dismay with our seeming inability to protect humanity's printed and written treasures from the depredations of the Blands of the world.

Archival professionals must share the author's disappointment with the continued reluctance of our legal system to vigorously punish the crimes of the theft and evisceration of library and archival material. Harvey, however, is also quite correct to point out that, with regard to Bland's crimes, only four of the nineteen institutions victimized felt it worthwhile to press charges against this mutilator of their treasures.

Harvey's intimation that some curatorial staff do not begin to comprehend the extent of their losses to such criminal activities is somewhat borne out in the 1999 publication, by C. Wesley Cowan, of an auction catalog of 516 unclaimed items recovered by the FBI from the stash of an even more notorious book thief, Stephen Carrie Blumberg. Although most of the nineteen tons of books and manuscripts were recovered from Blumberg through an extraordinary effort by librarians and archivists working in concert with Federal authorities, the origins of the materials auctioned off three years ago could never be identified. Too many of us simply do not know what we lose or lack the wherewithal to property mark what we do have so others may return our valuable property to us when it goes astray.

While the practicality of property marking is a controversial subject, especially among modern manuscript and some rare book curators, there can be few exculpatory arguments for not adhering to the other best practices in archival and library security. These are presently available to us in the series of works produced by the Association of College and Research Libraries' Rare Books and Manuscript Section Security Committee, most notably the "Guidelines for the Security of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Other Special Collections," approved in 1999. They are included, as well, in the second manual on archival security commissioned by the Society of American Archivists, Gregor Trinkaus-Randall's Protecting Your Collections: A Manual of Archival Security, published in 1995.

Security threats to archival collections have been the subject of a growing number of sessions at SAA meetings in recent years, and the Society now has a roundtable devoted to the subject. Yet the recently approved SAA Guidelines for a Graduate Program in Archival Studies make no specific mention of the study of the principles of archival security as part of the suggested curriculum, and relatively few graduate programs discuss the matter at length. We need to do more to make contemplation of archival and library theft and its prevention an essential part of the training of every archival professional.

Miles Harvey is a freelance writer and book columnist. He has written a sprightly book that has had enough popularity to cause it to be recently reissued in paperback. If his subject were not so very interesting, however, the author's frequent tendency toward semi-tangential excursions away from the heart of his subject would be off-putting to some readers. The most successful of these by-ways is his second chapter, "The Map Mogul" in which Harvey describes the vastly successful career of W. Graham Arader III. Harvey uses the colorful Arader's career as a map dealer to illustrate the spectacular rise in the market for antique maps that has occurred over the last third of the twentieth century.

Of far less relevance is Harvey's preoccupation with his own psychological motivations for writing The Island of Lost Maps. These ruminations occur too frequently and belong in a diary and not this book. Even when one is willing to subscribe to the value of literary allusion, moreover, the author's frequent reference to such esoterica as his invention of Mr. Peabody's ghost (it was the Peabody Library in which Bland met Jennifer Bryan) and his Hardy Boys reminiscences, not to mention two pages of "CliffsNotes" on Treasure Island, add little to the substance of this narrative and eventually cloy.

Harvey's success in describing the career of one who was highly successful at stealing from libraries and archives must also be viewed as a mixed blessing. Perhaps Harvey's work will succeed in sufficiently enlightening some members of our boards of trustees to the point that they will be inspired to provide the comparatively reasonable additional resources required to optimally protect our collections. More likely, however, The Island of Lost Maps will encourage copycatting among the more morally challenged of his readers.

Until society is prepared to devote appropriate resources to protect cultural treasures and more severely punish crimes committed against the institutions that preserve them, our collections will continue to be in jeopardy from individuals such as Bland and Blumberg. We archivists and our library colleagues must continue to be vigilant against such threats; and, as Harvey would be the first to agree, we must do much more to protect humanity's written legacy against such vandals than we have been able to do in the recent past.

Richard Strassberg
Martin P. Catherwood Library
Cornell University


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