GeoCarta Has Moved

Jan 15, 2006

Rare Maps Going Digital In Response To Thefts

Last summer's arrest of map dealer E. Forbes Smiley III, for the theft of several maps from Yale University is still impacting the nation's map libraries. The Hartford Courant has the story:
Smiley's arrest has put some of the nation's top institutions on edge, forcing them to walk an ever finer line between protecting their priceless treasures and making them available to geographers, scholars and the public. In the weeks after Smiley's arrest, the Boston Public Library, the Newberry Library in Chicago and the British Library in London discovered that rare books handled by the Martha's Vineyard map dealer were also missing maps. Other spots Smiley frequented - Harvard University, the New York Historical Society and the New York Public Library - are still reviewing their collections.
But if there is a silver lining to the thefts, it may that ultimately, many of the world's rarest maps may actually become more accessible to the public - in digital form. The Courant explains:
Once the inventory has been done, Yale may follow the lead of the Library of Congress, the British Library, Harvard and others, in digitizing its rarest material. Anyone with a computer can now view the Library of Congress' $10 million crown jewel, Martin Waldseemuller's 1507 world map, the first to use the word "America," or turn the pages of an atlas of Europe, at the British Library, drawn in the 1570s by Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator.

Libraries are digitizing their maps, first, to make their collections more accessible. But there are security benefits, too. By making high-resolution images available, libraries can limit the number of people handling their material, reducing the chance of theft. Second, if a map is stolen, libraries can circulate a picture of it among dealers, to alert them. And finally, if the stolen map later turns up, libraries can compare the stains, creases and imperfections of their original against the scanned image of the stolen maps to help prove ownership.

"It's undoubtedly the wave of the future," said George Ritzlin, a rare map dealer in Evanston, Ill. "No two copies are exactly the same. It should be a warning to thieves."
Increased access to high quality scans of rare maps is even leading to new discoveries. William Reese, a prominent rare book dealer told the Courant, "People are discovering, every day, differences in maps people weren't aware of before. It's going to be a tremendous aid for scholarship."