As curator of maps at the Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, Ron Grim remembers one of his favorite finds in the collection of 200,000 maps and 5,000 atlases. When he opened a nondescript portfolio, a note and two maps dating to 1776 slipped out. They had been used by Ben Franklin.
Grim oversees an archive of cartographic holdings from the 15th century to the present. “Our mission is not just to collect and preserve maps,” he said, “but also make people curious about how maps can teach us about history, world cultures, citizenship, and, of course, geography.”
The Leventhal Map Center has a significant number of maps from before the 1900s. How did map makers then view the world?
What makes them quite interesting is that there wasn’t the ability to fly over land and get a good sense of what the place looked like. You had to take surveying equipment and painstakingly measure each elevation. I’m really amazed how good they were. But there were still some mistakes – California, for example, appeared as an island on many maps for years.
Maps aren’t just for navigating, they reflect the interpretation of the map maker. Can you give some examples?
Maps have a lot of bias. It could be a paper map that selectively shows all the McDonald’s restaurants in Washington or a bird’s-eye view of a town, where the top of the map is not north, but the commercial part of town, which emphasizes its importance.
Have you ever worked as a cartographer?
I had a summer job where I was a surveying assistant for a construction crew. My first full-time job was at the National Archives. But I originally got interested in maps when my family traveled every summer and I’d help my father plan the trip.
The Forbes Smiley map theft case, in which the former map dealer was convicted of stealing from libraries, including the Boston Public Library, concluded about eight years ago. But there are still maps missing. Did you ever find them?
I have a list of maps that are missing. Occasionally, when a dealer catalog arrives, I have a few in mind that I always try to look for, but I never find them. I assume the maps ended up in a private collection.
What’s the next step for maps?
The next step is to take historical maps and overlay them on modern maps such as Google Earth to see things like a shoreline that has eroded. But maps will never be completely replaced by GPS. There will always be people who want to hold an actual paper map in their hand.