Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
One man's lifelong collection doubled the institution's map holdings in a day.
In 2012, Glen Creason got a call from a real estate agent about a soon-to-be-demolished house that was "full of maps." Creason was skeptical. As the head map librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, he'd made these kinds of trips before, rarely finding much more than a box of National Geographics. But he dutifully trekked to the two-story house in one of L.A.'s mountainside neighborhoods—where he found a trove unlike anything he could have imagined.
As a new short film by Alec Ernest (full disclosure: Ernest is a friend of mine) for the Los Angeles Review of Books reveals, tens of thousands of maps were stuffed into every cranny of the house: in cardboard boxes, filing cabinets, dairy crates and bookshelves. Old globes lined the walls. Rolled-up school-style maps were tucked in corners.
Creason couldn't believe it. LAPL had been collecting maps since 1873, yet with this one jackpot—the work of now-deceased cartogra-phile John Feathers—had doubled their collection in a single day.
"It's like he wanted to collect every map ever made," says Creason in the film. Yet they could have so easily been destroyed, were it not for that phone call.
Feathers's map collection was as diverse as it was tremendous. He'd stashed street maps, insurance maps, road maps, tourist maps, school atlases, maps to celebrity homes, maps to Beatnik hangouts, and much more from all over the world and all periods of history.
Now that they're safely stored at LAPL's downtown hub, Feathers's maps are available to anyone who wants to see them—and learn from the stories they tell.
"[Maps] are not just a bunch of lines on pages," says Creason. "They'll give you an idea of how people lived, if you look hard enough."