The Thunder Child

Science Fiction and Fantasy
Web Magazine and Sourcebooks

Radio Drama
Science Faction

Vol 1, Issue #7
"Stand By For Mars!"
July 2006

Deep Thought: Editorials by Caroline Miniscule
1. Boards of Directors and their Responsibilities

Whenever I read a book - either fiction or non-fiction - I do so with a notebook and pen by my side. I try to read with a receptive attitude, and write down anything that strikes me of interest, from moving quotes or prose passages to interesting facts, and make sure that I make note of book title, author, etc. so that I can give the author appropriate credit in my own writing.

Yesterday, I began The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime, by Miles Harvey (Broadway Books, 2000). It tells the story of a Gilbert Joseph Brand, who stole almost a million dollars worth of maps out of rare books. After being caught, tried and convicted, he spent less than two years in jail for his crimes.

Author Miles Harvey interweaves the story of the map thefts and the capture of Bland with the history of exploration and cartography and map collecting - but of necessity he can only touch briefly on each topic, since he only had 349 pages to work with.

The first thing that Harvey does is give a brief history of the Peabody Library (in which the map thief was finally caught) and it was this description that caught my interest.

The Peabody Institute

" …And so it happened that in 1857, during his first visit to the United States in almost twenty years, he (George Peabody) announced plans for a facility which, he said, ‘I hope may become useful towards the improvement of the moral and intellectual culture of the inhabitants of Baltimore.'"

This was the Peabody Institute, which would have an art institute, a lecture series, and an academy of music. "Perhaps most important," Harvey continued, "it would also have a library - but no ordinary one...

Peabody had two major stipulations for his library. First, he insisted that it would be ‘for the free use of all persons who may desire to consult it.' But it would not be a lending library. The volumes woud be only "the best works on every subject" - and they would never leave the building…what Peabody had in mind was a kind of modern-day athenaeum, a repository of wisdom and history that would survive the ages.

Peabody eventually endowed the library with $1.4 million…. "The Peabody collection eventually totaled more than 250,000 volumes."

This was pretty inspiring. George Peabody (1795-1869) had started out in life dirt poor, had only a 4th grade education (becoming apprenticed to a bootmaker at the age of 11), and became a self-made millionaire. He was the founder of modern philanthropy - and it was sources of free education that he wanted to bequeath to people who started out in life just as fortunate as himself.

Interior of the Peabody Library

In a much quoted phrase from a letter he wrote to one of his nephews:

"Deprived, as I was, of the opportunity of obtaining anything more than the most common education, I am well qualified to estimate its value by the disadvantages I labour under in the society in which my business and situation in life frequently throws me, and willingly would I now give twenty times the expense attending a good education could I possess it, but it is now too late for me to learn and I can only do to those that come under by care, as I could have wished circumstances had permitted other to have done by me."

But then author Harvey went on: "Because of shifting financial priorities at the Peabody Institute, few books have been added to the library's collection since the early part of this century [that would be the 1900s]. Today the library, run by the Johns Hopkins University - is something of a gilded warehouse of old books, a treasure-house of knowledge that goes largely unused. Only a few patrons visit the Peabody Library each day." (Info from pages 5-7 of *The Island of Lost Maps.)

The Mystery of the Missing Endowment
I thought this story of the fate of Peabody's library was rather sad. If somebody founds a library *and endows it with $1.4 million (which in today's money is probably ten times that), by what right do "shifting financial priorities" from its umbrella board of directors justify using library money for something other than maintaining the library? I made a note to myself that I'd do some research on this topic after I'd finished the book.

While I wasn't that familiar with George Peabody prior to reading The Island of Lost Maps, I did recognize his name (for reasons I'll explain later on), so I continued reading with curiosity on several levels.

On page 84, Harvey finally got around to giving more information about the Peabody Library:

  • "By 1910 the Peabody institute was devoting more and more funds to its famous music conservatory, fewer and fewer to the collection
  • By 1940 book buying had petered out almost entirely
  • By 1960 the library - full of dusty old books nobody could check out - had fallen into an alarming state of neglect. "Basically, nobody was using it," [and] "Worse yet, the Peabody Institute no longer had the funds to adequately maintain the beautiful old building."

And again I wondered…what had happened to Peabody's endowment that had been specifically targeted to the library - at least according to Harvey? Properly invested, the money should still have been growing and available for necessary purchases and repairs to the library, as Peabody no doubt expected.

In 1966, according to Harvey, "the Institute's board of trustees voted to hand the Peabody over to Baltimore's public library system," under whose aegis it continued to deteriorate. At one point city officials apparently considered auctioning off the library's most valuable books, moving the rest into the "public system", and "converting the building into a study hall for high school students."

The scheme was abandoned due to protests from "the local academic community." In 1982 the library was handed over to the control of the Johns Hopkins University. The University had their own problems with the building - it was in disrepair, including a leaky roof.

In 1989, Harvey recounts, Johns Hopkins decided to auction off ten of the library's rare books, anticipating that the funds acquired would be enough to repair the building. Most of the ensuing outrage was not because of the plan to auction off the books…but rather that the books were in essence going to be destroyed - carefully taken apart so that individual plates - of maps, of illustrations such as birds, etc., could be sold separately.

Despite the protests, the sale took place and raised a total of $2.4 million, which "allowed Hopkins to keep the building and the collection open to the public."

That was in 1989. But, as Harvey had pointed out in the beginning pages of his book: "Today the library, run by the Johns Hopkins University - is something of a gilded warehouse of old books, a treasure-house of knowledge that goes largely unused. Only a few patrons visit the Peabody Library each day."

The Island of Lost Maps was published in 2000. Now, 6 years later, I felt curious enough to do some research on the web to see if the status of the Peabody Library had changed.

The Peabody Library
There are actually two Peabody Libraries - as I found out by doing a websearch…one in Danvers, Massachusetts (Peabody's home town - now called Peabody) and the one I was interested in, in Baltimore, Maryland. I could find no information, through a websearch, on how many people make use of the Peabody Library today.

Peabody and the Dinosaurs
I had been familiar with George Peabody's name before reading The Island of Lost Maps, because I've long been interested in the history of dinosaurs, and so at some point had read a book called The Bone Wars - which recounted the story of two paleontologists, Othniel Marsh and George Drinker Cope, who feuded with each other during the early days of paleontology in the United States. Othniel Marsh was the nephew of George Peabody, and it was because of Othniel Marsh's urging that Peabody had founded The Peabody Museum on the campus of Yale University, with Marsh as its first curator.

The author of The Island of Lost Maps was interested in maps, not dinosaurs, so in his brief description of Peabody's life and activities he never mentions Peabody's connection with Yale or dinosaurs. I wondered if other sources would also fail to mention what to me was very important!

A lot of people use this as their first source for research - unfortunately too many people also use it as their only source of research. I use it myself, but only as one source among many. I'm always uncomfortable using a source when you don't know who wrote what you're reading…and who edited what someone else wrote, etc.

So, I looked George Peabody up on Wikipedia, and while his entry was full of information on his many philanthropic gifts, and indeed mentions that he founded The Peabody Musuem at Yale University - it doesn't say that he'd done it at the behest of his nephew, Othniel Marsh. (However, in the Wikipedia entry on Othniel Marsh, this is made clear.)

The Peabody Institute and The Peabody Library both have websites, and while each has a history page they don't go into a great amount of detail as to how both ended up under the aegis of the Johns Hopkins University, nor does the Peabody Library site make mention of how many visitors they have in a day.

Finally, I visited, and did a search for George Peabody…and while many books are listed, only two seem to be in print: George Peabody, A Biography, by Franklin Parker, and A Life Divided: George Peabody, Pivotal Figure in Anglo-American Finance, Philanthropy and Diplomacy, by Robert Van Riper. And neither of these books had any description of their contents, let alone reviews from readers.

However, when I return to the United States after my extended stay in Germany, I will check out these books, and perhaps more, and see what I can find out not only about the Board of Directors of the Peabody Library during the early 1900s, but also about Boards of Directors in general and how they may, or may not, take care of the libraries or other institutions entrusted to them.

Go to:

Non-Fiction Book Reviews

Recommended Reading

Learn more or
Buy Now

Learn more or
Buy Now

Learn more or
Buy Now

Learn more or
Buy Now

Learn more or
Buy Now

Learn more or
Buy Now

[Home Page] [Contact Us] [Triskelion] [TechnoOcean] [Daily Space] [Store] [Site Map]

To see our animated navigation bars, please download the Flash Player from Adobe.

All text © 2006, 2007 The Thunder Child unless otherwise credited.
All illustrations retain original copyright.
Please contact us with any concerns as to correct attribution.
Any questions, comments or concerns contact The Thunder Child.