Monday, January 25, 2016

The Map Thief - by Michael Blanding

My husband, James and I read this book aloud together. It was recommended by a friend as it brings together James' passion of geography and mine of books and libraries. We finished this a few weeks ago, but I held off blogging about it because I found out that we would have the opportunity to hear the author speak at the Massachusetts State Library in Boston shortly after we finished it. It was not our first visit to the State House - James goes there about once a year with his EarthView globe-, but it was the first time visiting the State Library. Blanding was witty and seemed to thoroughly enjoy speaking in the stately room. He smiled the entire time as he showed slides with maps and photographs and discussed how he did the research for his book. The Map Thief  is the true story of E. Smiley Forbes III who stole maps from the Boston Public Library, the New York Public Library, the Beinecke  and Sterling Libraries at Yale, Harvard Library, as well as the British Library. In order to pay the phenomenal debts he racked up for his home on Martha's Vineyard, as well as for his planned community Sebec, Maine, Forbes, a well-respected map dealer, began stealing rare maps in order to sell them to collectors. It was a Yale librarian, Margit Kaye, who first suspected Smiley, when she noticed a smudge mark on a map that Smiley had posted on his website - a smudge she was sure she had made! However, when she brought her suspicions to the attention of her supervisor his response was a dismissive "what do you want me to do...arrest the guy?" Ultimately it was another Yale librarian, Naomi Saito, who set in motion the events that lead to Smiley's arrest in 2005.

Blanding talked to a number of librarians and map dealers in the course of researching this book. He also explores the history of maps and mapmaking, and discusses my favorite Librarian/Geographer, Eratosthenes, head librarian of the famous Library of Alexandria in Egypt in 240 B.C.

Blanding's book also tells of how maps were recovered and then how forensics were used to determine which maps belonged to which library. I was especially interested in the clever librarians who used wormholes to identify their map of Gerard de Jode's Speculum Orbis Terrarum
For centuries libraries had been plagued with wood-boring insects that laid their eggs in the stacks. When the larvae hatched, they used the digestive enzymes in their alimentary canals the chew through wood and paper, leaving behind a tiny trail. Somewhere in its 427-year history, the Beineke's copy of the Speculum had contracted its own case of pests. In the front of the book, a dozen pages sported a small constellation of three pin-sized holes near the bottom and another hole three inches up. Now, as the librarians laid the map carefully back into the volume, those holes matched identical holes in the edge of the map where it had been held in place.
Well researched, well written, and full of real-life clever librarians, this is a title truly worthy of its place on this blog.

A post script: While the book is finished, the story is not. As recently as November of last year  the Boston Public Library  recovered a stolen map thanks to an "eagle-eyed" librarian who identified a the map based on flaws in the document.

My favorite quote from the day: "It was a battle, but it was a quiet battle because they were librarians."

Author Michael Blanding signs copies of his book, surrounded by maps, at the State Library.

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