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How should we respond to early map thefts?

(Mounted on the web in May 2002)

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Summary of the main points made

Why are early maps particularly vulnerable to theft?

There has been an increase in map thefts from libraries in recent years, firstly with the activities in North America of < http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/byform/mailing-lists/exlibris/2000/04/msg00190.html > Gilbert Bland (see Section 5 of that listing of links). Bland was also the subject of a book by Miles Harvey. Then there were losses in Europe in 2001 (UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Finland).

Thieves do not generally try to remove an entire atlas from a library; they take single sheets, which are much more portable. They may also target books, illustrated with a few maps. Such items will usually be kept in a Rare Book library, not the Map Library. This requires good liaison between the map specialist and the Rare Book librarian, to identify such volumes and provide special security for them.

The rare map trade finds most of its material in atlases. Single maps removed, legitimately if questionably, from an atlas in the dealer's possession will be indistinguishable from others stolen from a library (except, perhaps, for the presence, or trace, of a library stamp) . Recent thefts, in both North America and Europe, involved common 'rare' maps, particularly those covering the most commercially valuable parts of the world from the 16th and 17th century atlases of, e.g., Blaeu, Mercator-Janssonius, Ortelius and Speed.

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Why is so little information about map thefts released?

There is a 'triangle' of interests involved: libraries/archives, police, and the trade [dealers and auctions]. Their agendas tend to conflict. Institutions are worried about political embarrassment and the fear that publicity will encourage further thefts. Some law enforcement agencies urge secrecy, believing that it is easier to catch a thief if he is unaware that the loss has been discovered. By contrast, the trade have a strong and urgent need for a full and detailed list of all that has been taken. Yet, of all the items taken in 2001 from the five libraries that reported losses [and this was certainly well over 100], only six maps have been publicly described (see under IMCoS Journal). Just a small proportion has, apparently, been recovered.

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Why a policy of secrecy about map thefts is unhelpful

The most important single step is to persuade those in the library and archive community who favour a policy of secrecy that this policy is counter-productive, for the following reasons:-

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How might the situation be improved in future?

A word, first, about the working of the early map trade. Most such maps are ultimately sold into the area depicted. Hence maps of America, for example, when stolen in Europe, can end up in the hands of unsuspecting American dealers. Maps of the world are particularly popular because, by definition, they can be sold anywhere. The trade in early maps is thus thoroughly international. Any solution must have an equivalent global dimension.

It is proposed here that what is required is a central register of stolen maps. The register's location and precise content have still to be resolved, but the recommended principles would be as follows:-

The authorities cited under 'Procedures for reporting theft' recommend wide and immediate disclosure - see for example 'Guidelines regarding thefts in libraries', issued by the Association of [American] College and Research Libraries (see particularly Section I, F and Appendix I) and < http://www.mla.gov.uk/webdav/harmonise?Page/@id=73&Document/@id= 19259&Section[@stateId_eq_left_hand_root]/@id=4332&Session/@id=D_QeNyu7brId0ITOVY4ydr > 'Guide on the Action to be taken in Cases of Theft...', issued by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) (see 'Recovery of the Property'). It is also worth quoting a London manuscripts dealer, from the Observer (Jason Burke, 'Britain leads illicit trade in rare books', 10 June 2001): "These days we all keep each other informed of what's gone missing and no one will touch anything that looks hot. Most of what is stolen is virtually unsaleable as a result."

However, when it comes to disclosure of information, institutions vary in their approach. Despite official advice, the recent pattern has been in favour of secrecy. The accompanying page of links shows that there is no single organisation that can speak for all the world's research libraries (although there is a single international body for archives). Closer co-ordination between the representative bodies for the UK and Europe as a whole, on the one hand, and the various organisations in the United States, on the other, is essential, both to co-ordinate policy and to share information about stolen items with the map trade.

Tony Campbell
(formerly Map Librarian, British Library and, prior to that, an antiquarian map dealer)
5 May 2002

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