The island of lost maps : a true story of cartographic crime

by Miles Harvey

Hardcover, 2000




New York : Random House, c2000.


"The Island of Lost Maps" tells the story of a curious crime spree: the theft of scores of valuable, centuries-old maps from some of the most prominent research libraries in the United States and Canada. When all was said and done, Gilbert Joseph Bland, Jr., had become the Al Capone of cartography, the most prolific American map thief in history.

User reviews

LibraryThing member Fourpawz2
This is primarily the story of a map thief, Gilbert Bland, Jr., who stole and sold countless rare maps from libraries all over the United States and even Canada and the author’s efforts to get to the bottom of the why of it. Bland is a difficult person to figure out – he often comes across as a man as bland as his name – but some of the rest of the time he appears like just another greedy, destructive thief. Although Bland displays a lot of nerve as he violates rare books all over the country, from what I read, at least as much blame needs to be placed upon the librarians who have not done enough to protect their books. Neither did they pursue prosecution forcefully enough, justifying their choice because it was too expensive. (Of course, I realize that budgets are also at least partly to blame for this problem.)

Harvey pursues the Bland story for years, gathering news stories, conducting interviews and researching the world of map collecting, but never achieving his ultimate goal – an interview with the map thief himself. By the end of the book, Harvey wonders about his pursuit of the story and of his dogged attempts to interview and understand Gilbert Bland. He realizes, eventually, that he is obsessed with him and that it is not a healthy thing. It does not, however, turn him away from the story. He has to follow it through to the end.

Harvey introduces the reader to a variety of collectors and cartomaniacs. I don’t think that I realized before how many really old maps there were or how they were at one time, closely guarded state-secrets. You have to wonder how things would have turned out if Columbus’ brother, Bartolomeo, had not copied several Portuguese maps, (selling them at a tidy profit) and used the revealed knowledge to bolster the whole argument for Christopher’s voyage?

The collection of maps is not an inexpensive hobby; collectible maps cost thousands today. The truly rare can go at auction for significantly more than a million. Harvey writes extensively about a man who I guess is the foremost map dealer in the world (or was back in the 90’s), Graham Arader. Clearly he was helpful to Harvey, but I did not like him. Perhaps it is bad tempered jealousy on my part – Arader’s canny collecting seems to me almost solely responsible for the tremendous hike in antique map prices – but he seemed arrogant and smug. It is hard to like the super rich. And damn it, after reading about all those lovely maps, I kind of wanted one for myself.

Overall a good book. I learned a lot. Oh, yes – as for the physical book itself – I loved reading this edition – the size, the pages, the look – everything was just right.
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LibraryThing member rowmyboat
An easy, though somewhat dissatisfying read. Pretty pictures. Well indexed and with good note and citations.

Really, there are three threads in this book, and only one has to do much with the "cartographic crime" of the subtitle. The three threads intermingle throughout the book, more or less related.

First, there is a history of exploration and map-making. For me, this was the most interesting bit. It is accompanied by reproductions from old maps, illustrating what is being discussed.

Second is the story of map thievery that the book purports to be about. This part ties to the first, as some of the maps discussed in the history lesson, and shown in the illustrations, are the ones stolen. Anyway, the thief is named Gilbert Bland (and many other things), and he stole maps to turn around and sell. The author traces his criminal youth and later map-stealing history. There are a few holes in the story, though these are due to lack of records, rather than lack of author's research skill. I will lump into this part also the interviews with map collectors and dealers, as many of these people had stories to tell about interactions with Bland, or reflections on his crimes.

Third, there is an irritatingly self-conscious story of the author's own affinity for maps and his attempts to get Bland's whole story. Really, the book could have done without most of this first person hoopla. There are parts, such as the author's failed attempts to get interviews with Bland, that are pertinent, but mostly it's a lot if irrelevant navel-gazing.

I don't know, maybe the Gilbert Bland story by itself wasn't enough to fill a whole book, so we got this other stuff too?

But, read it if you want some light, but non-fiction, fluff for a beach day or something. It's about 350 pages, but the book's barely bigger than a mass-market paperback, so it;s not that long a read.

It's not bad, just the author forgot wheat the story was about.
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LibraryThing member mapzlibrarian
This is my favorite non-fiction book. Miles Harvey writes about so much more than just map theft. There is a chapter on what make librarian tick, another chapter collectors, another on vendors, and thieves - you get the idea. Plus there are some great insights on library security precautions. Highly recommended!
LibraryThing member amerynth
I am still shaking my head about Miles Harvey's "The Island of Lost Maps" -- what a wasted opportunity for an interesting book. I decided to read this one after reading Michael Blandings' excellent and far superior book "The Map Thief" and I just shouldn't have bothered.

The book is supposed to be about map thief Gilbert Bland Jr., who ripped maps out of library books and made a pretty good living at it until he got caught. Harvey clearly doesn't have enough material on Bland for a full-length book so he includes lots of junk that has no bearing on the story. It's like writing a story about a famous doctor and saying, "I had some cashews for breakfast and that takes me back to the main character of my story, because he was nuts." Harvery frequently inserts himself into the story in bizarre ways.

The point of no return for me was when Harvey begins describing how the ghost of a dead librarian felt about Bland's thefts. I'm sure this was based on extensive interviews with the ghost of the library. Hello, this isn't supposed to be a fiction! It was impossible to take anything Harvey said seriously after that chapter.

Skip this book and read "The Map Thief" instead... you'll get much more out of it.
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LibraryThing member ForeignCircus
It is hard to know what to say about this book which rather defies description. It purports to be about the prolifigate map thief Gilbert Bland, but really Bland's crimes are just the jumping off point for a book about maps,those who made them, and those who covet them. I thought this book would be more similar to The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, but because Bland remained but a shadowy presence, the feel of the two books is completely different. That said, I still found myself pulled into this book and unable to put it down. I can't really explain why I enjoyed it so much, I just did, to the tune of five stars. If you love maps then you are likely to love this book, but if you are looking for a true crime caper, this might not be your cup of tea.… (more)
LibraryThing member bedda
The Island of Lost Maps is sort of a true crime story. But not really. What got the author started down this road was the theft of maps from various libraries by Gilbert Bland. The author becomes fascinated with the story and ends up on a rather broader journey than expected. Harvey does go into the details of Bland's crimes and the history of the man himself (he also does some supposing about why Bland did what he did) but the book is not just about Bland. I wouldn't even say it is mostly about Bland. It isn't even just about maps. There is a lot of interesting (at least to me) information here about the history of mapmaking and the history of map thievery. It goes into the politics of maps and why they were so well guarded through history. It talks about why people today have such an interest in old maps and why people feel the need to collect them. It goes into the issues that libraries have with making rare books available to the public without making them vulnerable to theft and vandalism and how libraries can keep the books together and whole when there are no funds. Harvey's quest to find Bland led him all over the place and you have to be prepared to follow him there. Even when he goes on little detours. The book does tend to meander around a bit and follows Harvey's movements instead of having some, maybe, more cohesive style. I didn't mind because I found all his detours and musings interesting. Just beware that this book covers almost as much ground as the maps he's talking about… (more)
LibraryThing member edspaeth
"A True Story of Cartographic Crime" is the subtitle of this book about the surreptious dealings of Gilbert Bland as he extracted valuable antique maps and books from many notable libraries including Yale University and Columbia Univesity among many others. The trail of the crime was sometimes hard to follow as the author detailed certain volumes or ancient explorations but if one has any interest in maps this book is a fascinating story.… (more)
LibraryThing member jdecastro
I love maps and thought the story sounded interesting but over time got really tired of the authors wandering around, really not seeming to ever get to the point.
LibraryThing member bookhaven
This was about two thirds excellent and one third not. The history of maps, the story of the theif - they are very nice. BUT, I didn't really care about Miles Harvey's personal quest to meet the theif.
LibraryThing member karrotab
Reads like a bad New Yorker article. Struggled to the end to think, "So..."
LibraryThing member jaygheiser
Terrific read. Some good insight for Infosec issues, especially the 'burying your head in the sand' part.
LibraryThing member catarina1
Interesting read about the theft of maps from libraries, but also much information about the history, the making, the selling, etc. of maps. Some of the digression became tiring and I winced a couple of times with the author's comparisons. But generally it was an enjoyable read about a subject I knew little about.
LibraryThing member wdwilson3
A criminal profile missing a key element, the criminal's own words. The author/reporter lets himself be the story far too much, as well.
LibraryThing member melannen
Most of this has been covered by other reviewers, so I'll be a bit brief; in general I agree - this is a good book that is kept from "excellent" by the author's attempts to mingle three narrative threads, and doing it badly. I ended up doing what I do with some particularly frustrating fantasy epics and skipping through so I could read one thread at a time, because the structure as it stands is unsatisfying.

However! It is still a good book, and it is full of the joy of libraries, books, maps, printing and knowledge; it is the literary equivalent of the images you get when you google "library porn" with safesearch on. Also, how have I lived in this area my whole life and never been to the Peabody library? Must remedy this soonest.
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LibraryThing member danrebo
At the point he announced that he wouldn't psychoanalyze Bland I knew the author would do just that. It becomes autobiographical at that point, too, which wasn't where my own interests lay. I found it was far longer than necessary for what it was but enjoyed the details about cartographic history.
LibraryThing member ingxangxosi
Modern cartography began with the Dutch East India Company and their efforts to create charts of the Southwestern Pacific area. This text traces the development of mapping and the curious characters who would steal early maps for big rewards.
LibraryThing member JBD1
Should be required reading for anyone who works with rare books or other materials. An excellent read for everyone else as well.
LibraryThing member Gantois
I enjoyed reading this one. It is a fascinating account of the search for a map thief. A guy who visited library with the sole purpose of robbing maps and selling these in the dubious circuit of antiquarians. The book not only tells the story of a famous map thief, the reader also gets some background information of the strange world of map dealers and collectors. It is also well written: a crime story with a strong cultural component.… (more)
LibraryThing member jspringbrinkley
Reading this book currently. So far I am finding it very interesting but scattered. I love maps and cartographic history, when I picked this book up I was thinking it would be more along those lines, but so far I am fairly entertained. Will update when I am done reading.
LibraryThing member mbmackay
This book tells the story of the map thief who stole maps from rare book and documents collections at many libraries and institutions in North America in the 1990s. Remarkably, his modus operandi was painfully simple - present false ID at registration and just cut the desired page out of the priceless books and walk out with it stuffed down his shirt.
The book is written by a journalist who covered the case for a magazine. While it is a well written book with some catching turns of phrase, it is too long. There is too much padding out of the story, reflections on all things that could possibly be called upon in reference to maps, exploration, psychology etc etc. A shorter, tighter book would have been better.
Read July 2013
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LibraryThing member NWcats
Harvey does a nice job weaving in the history of map making and libraries into this true crime tale. I enjoyed the first half of the book far better than the second half.
LibraryThing member hardlyhardy
Maps have been, at various times in history, as valuable as gold. History has often turned because of a stolen map. It is believed Christopher Columbus may have discovered America thanks to a stolen map. Not that America was on the map, but he probably would not have tried to reach Asia by sailing west without that map.

Miles Harvey says a lot about maps, and especially stolen maps, in his book "The Island of Lost Maps," but mostly he focuses on the cartographic crimes of Gilbert Bland. Bland made a good living by brazenly stealing valuable maps from libraries throughout North America and selling them to collectors and dealers.

But Bland is hardly the only person to steal maps from libraries in recent years. Libraries are not known for having tight security. Their reason for existence, after all, is to give the public access to information. And not every patron can be watched all the time. Bland would simply ask to see an old atlas and, when nobody else was around, use a razor blade to cut out one or more maps. He would return the atlas with the maps inside his shirt, and librarians would be none the wiser. After Bland was caught, not all the recovered stolen maps could be returned. Some libraries still didn't know anything was missing.

The Bland case and Harvey's book, published in 2000, have served to remind libraries that safeguarding valuable documents is another reason they exist.
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LibraryThing member Melissarochell
Perfection. So much fascinating history weaved together with an array of fascinating stories. The way all the stories intertwined without you even realizing the transitions, this book, in itself, exemplified the beauty of cartography. Never thought I could get so lost in a map.
LibraryThing member WaxPoetic
I read this book in one setting. It was thrilling and descriptive and very, very disturbing. The libraries that were the scenes of crimes committed by people who trade in commodified maps were described so beautifully that I wanted nothing more than to travel to them and sit at their tables and read a book and not cut something out.

It is naive to believe that where there is interest a market will not spring to life. However, I found myself absolutely enraged at the clinical nature of the dealings in what I believe are living works of science and art seamlessly blended to communicate information.

Maps are romantic and inspiring and frustrating. The black market in them is no less intriguing and depressing. To deface a book in a library is nothing to one who can see only the monetary value in a page. And there is a market for such people and such pages.

This is a well-written, enjoyably read tale of map-sellers and investigative journalism that has very little to do with the science of cartography, although I believe it to be enormously relevant to anyone interested in that science.

It raises ethical and moral questions. It raises questions about the purpose of maps and how they exist in our day-to-day lives and world. The author also, and more immediately, evokes a sense of the sacred in library spaces. I am still inspired to tour the libraries he describes, if only to gaze in their windows and think off all the pages left alone by thieving blades.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
This is an absolutely fascinating true crime account of the cartomaniac who stole hundreds of priceless maps from the stacks of such illustrious libraries as The Peabody (at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore). The aptly named Gilbert Bland Jr used several aliases and was never questioned by security or librarians. He gave every appearance of being a mild-mannered scholar. But he sliced maps out of ancient books, and then sold them to collectors.

Harvey crafts the story like the best true-crime writers. The reader knows the crime and the criminal pretty much at the outset, but it’s the hunt for why? that propels the narrative. Along the way Harvey includes considerable information about map-making and the human fascination with maps since ancient times. I was captivated from the opening lines.
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