The Treasures of Yale: The Map Collection

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I’m something of a map enthusiast. While planning room furnishing with future suitemates this past summer, I made one promise: I would bring maps. And I did. And naturally, I quickly learned about Yale’s Map Collection in Sterling Memorial Library. But when I finally visited this past weekend, I was little prepared for the locked door (visitors ring a doorbell to get in), the required identification photo, the numerous map-viewing guidelines and a tale of crime with a shock value rivaling the noblest of Ronnell Higgins’ emails.

The flatness of maps allows the Map Collection to be deceivingly compact — only three rooms were in sight. I was shocked to learn that the collection is home to over a quarter million maps, including 3,000 atlases. Among the collection’s contents are a Zapotec map on deerskin, the oldest existing map of New Orleans and two globes made by seventeenth-century Venetian master Vincenzo Coronelli. There are lunar maps, maps of imaginary places and numerous maps depicting California as an island — a common misconception in the early cartography of North America. The caged areas of the stacks’ seventh floor are home to more maps, and overflow is being moved from Mudd Library to a facility in Hamden, CT. In short, there are many, many maps.

With an appointment or through a class, you can have a map brought to the collection’s Reading Room for viewing. Otherwise, many maps can be found on the library website. (I’m examining New Haven County on a map from George Washington’s personal atlas as I type.) Like books in the University’s libraries, the maps are searchable on Orbis. Just set “Location” to “Map Collection” on Advanced Search.

I soon learned the security measures — including the locked door and strict guidelines for viewing the maps — are results of the exploits of Forbes Smiley III. A dealer in rare maps, Smiley successfully stole 97 historical maps from libraries in Boston, New York City, London, and Chicago. He even stole from our own Beinecke and Sterling Memorial Libraries in the early 2000s. Finally, Smiley’s cover was blown when he dropped an X-Acto knife in Beinecke in June 2005, resulting in a five-year prison sentence. Yikes.

On the whole, the Map Collection is interesting, but accessibility is more limited than I previously thought. It’s also not a collection one casually peruses on a whim — an appointment and purpose help. Most importantly, save your shady dealings for elsewhere — as we here in the Elm City know well, it’s best if we all just leave our X-Acto knives at home.

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