The Thunder Child
Science Fiction and Fantasy
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
In a much quoted phrase from a letter he wrote to one of his nephews:
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
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:
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
Peabody and the Dinosaurs
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!
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 Amazon.com, 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.
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