The Map Collection: a Reason to Believe

by Glen Creason
LIII-History Dept.


 I have an existential map. It has "you are here" written all over it.
---Steven Wright

      Those who toil in the Technicolor weirdness of Central library subject departments probably hear the same ghastly question I do when our occupation comes up: "why in the hell do you want to work down there?"  That one ranks up there with my Mom's "don't you ever dust?" for inquiries that set my teeth on edge. True, in my time at Goodhue's masterpiece I have seen more than a carnie barker and heard stranger things than any waterfront bartender or prison shrink. Yet, there is another side to this sideshow.  There must be some reason why I have Bataan death marched past the fire, walked over the hot coals of Spring Street and moved through the dark shadows of LL4 to follow the LIII map quest in History. It would be easy to go mad and join the crowd out in Maguire Gardens after some of what I have seen and smelled but we tread the razor blade between madness and enlightenment while tottering on shaky Central legs. Pour a couple of drinks down any one of us and the truth will come out that despite the goofballs we are actually proud of this place if not this time. You see, down here we have the cooling balm of our collections to soothe away the endless hours of handing out newspapers, emptying trans-logic carts and listening to the genealogical equivalent of "Finnegans Wake."

     With my fellow staff members disappearing like the dark whiskers in my goatee and porn monkeys crawling all over our computer research stations I ask myself the "what am I doing here?" question frequently.  I could be writing columns on the great new addition to the Cerritos Towne Center, something with Shoppe in the title or reading "Dinosaur Bob and the Family Lizardo" to little tykes in the boonies but instead I am still in the History department. I am here mainly for two reasons: my mortgage and my love of the map collection. Sure, I share my dungeon with some excellent librarians and nice support staff but maps are cool and don't talk back like genealogists. I apologize in advance for the seemingly egotistical, solipsistic quality of this story. The maps and I have sort of become one in the past fifteen years like Chang and Eng.  A friend once described a similar interchange that went  "well enough talk about me, what do YOU think of me?"

     The Map Collection is something to bust buttons over and it is one hard copy collection that is actually growing and thriving. In the past year we have actually increased our size in Shaq sized leaps, adding many historical foldout maps, several hundred historical topos and sixty volumes of Sanborn Fire Insurance atlases. All of this without spending a penny since all of this largesse came from our public. Like Wynona Ryder we have filled our shopping bag without putting out a red cent.  Try that at Nordstroms.  What is now near 100,000 maps plus a whole lot of other cartographic stuff had fairly humble beginnings. One of the earliest inventories of maps at LAPL was in 1891 where 104 graced the collection. The focus of Los Angeles might have been quite simple, comprised of the original 1849 Ord Survey and a few variations on the four square leagues of the original city.  Before the land booms of the 1880's there wasn't much call for local maps. So few Angelenos inhabited our fair city that mostly you could stand at the plaza and point:" yeah, Mr. Alvarado's place is up on that hill, near Eternity Street just past them sheep up there." Some five years later when the library contained signs that curtly stated "Ladies: this room is for reading purposes, not for conversation" the collection had swelled to almost two thousand.  It was a time of complicated wool outfits worn in summer, before dry cleaning. Can you imagine what a reading room smelled like in those days?

     When the wise ones planned the glittering new library at 5th and Flower in the 1920's the early blueprints designated a map room attached to the History department. As Goodhue's masterpiece opened in 1926 there were some 5,000 maps in several departments. The much-revered Mary Helen Peterson who eventually would have the map room named in her honor was put in charge of gathering up all the cartographic materials and joining them in one tidy place. By the time the library was divided into subject departments in October of 1927 the History department was given the bulk of the collection with Science handling geologic and soil maps. Rumor has it that little Roy Stone used to take breaks from organizing the scrolls in rat alley to shelve maps in the five cases we had at that time. Those cases were World War I vintage and had once contained detailed plans of the European theater of battle. Much later, in 1986 the tough old cases would come in handy.

     When WWII arrived it brought an influx of public need to see cartographic documentation of the theaters of battle and the countries on both the Axis and Allied sides. The addition of the whopping Army Map Service map collections and the status of government depository of these official maps gave rise to a separate map facility in the History department called the Army Map Room. The Map Room was one of those eccentric little cubbyholes in the old building that was both creepy and quaint. It was small, cramped and overflowing with backlogs of all sorts of maps arriving like spam in an AOL account each day. This eccentric little space had a nobly institutional character with a steep ramp downward to the magazine pool, sunlight that cascaded through a pair of smudged windows and drawer upon drawer full of mysterious treasures seen mostly by the staff and a few dogged patrons.  Downstairs, where the Ronald McDonald Children's Charities Southern California Multimedia Center (try to say that after your second margarita!) sits today were large wings or binders containing attached USGS topographic maps of California. Of course, those of Hollywood or Los Angeles were more often in somebody's den since they were frequently torn out for souvenirs of a visit to the Central Library. Some things never change.

     In June of 1949, the first of two map mavens took the reins, as Anne Mueller became librarian in charge of the map room. Miss Mueller was responsible for much growth and conservation of materials while building the Map Room into an important reference source for the West coast. In 1958 Bill Wise was brought in as a library assistant and began a distinguished career preparing, indexing and servicing the collection. The distinctive handwritten notes of Mr. Wise still direct patrons and befuddled librarians to find the answers in a haystack of sizes, shapes and applications. On January 27, 1971 the Army Map Room was officially designated as the Mary Helen Peterson Map Room. Peter, as she was affectionately called by staff held the collection in good stead between puffs on her camel cigarettes for the rest of her fine career in History. However, like most of pre-fire Central the map collection was not easily accessible to the public and the need for a subject specialist in the field gave rise to the position of Map Librarian that was given to Dorothy Mewshaw in 1970. Dorothy, my predecessor was known for her sharp mind, organizational skills and large ubiquitous bags that she hauled. No one knows exactly what was inside those bags but one can assume much of it was about maps and mapping. When Miss Mewshaw handed me the reins she held more map knowledge in her little pinky than I had in my entire head.  She was more than ably assisted by Dennis Alward, the library assistant for the map room who left a legacy of detailed and insightful suggestions on how to use the collection. His profuse notations include how to fold them, how to treat them and how they compared to other sources and editions. The man drank a lot of coffee and loved maps.

     On the terrible, terrible morning of April 29, 1986 arson fire started in the stacks of Fiction, next door to the History department and swept westward through the tinderbox of Central's stacks. The inferno blazed across the magazine pool, passed directly through the upstairs map room and on toward the ultimate obliteration of Science, Social Science and the Patents room. When hundreds of broken hearted library staff waded in the dingy water the next day Dorothy darted up the stairs to find the Mary Helen Peterson map room pretty much intact. By the miracle of the robust WWI cases most of the collection was unscathed, save a few smoke stains. One exception was the irreplaceable roller maps which were scorched in the closed stacks of History near the 92 N's that went to book heaven, followed by oceans of the saving waters of LAFD fire hoses. Maps that were as large as a wall went down to the arsonist's evil but many were saved. Without hesitation, Dorothy Mewshaw and her now intrepid assistant Roselynn Lee started to ensure the safety of the collection with an inventory upstairs and downstairs. Dorothy treated each one with the delicacy of a nurse in the maternity ward.  Like the rest of the gold in Central the old friends took a holiday for several years but one fine day in 1988 they came back home and were unloaded hand over hand by the crack movers of Crest. Maybe it was the crack-smoking movers. Seems they weren't too familiar with the concept of filing and hand over hand meant an entire collection was now snug in drawers like a tossed salad. Luckily Frank Louck was in the house and the History department hall of famer meticulously put the piles back in order, drawer by drawer by drawer by... Frank was a patient man; after all, he supervised me for twenty odd years.

      When the library finally opened their doors on Spring Street the maps were placed in a public area on the second floor.  This set up problems never before seen by the collection that had been protected like a Jewish grandchild. The rowdy chess games that raged on the border of Art and History often involved the use of topo maps as sketch sheets, place mats for illegal lunches and even impromptu megaphones for one group of library delinquents. In these uncertain and confusing times Dorothy Mewshaw saw it through to 433 Spring and decided to go no further. Like Roberto Duran before her she dropped her gloves and said "no mas!" So, in a fierce battle for the  "Subject Specialist in Maps" job I was chosen to carry on the torch that had been so nobly gripped by the likes of Anne Mueller, Mary Helen Peterson, Bill Wise, Dorothy Mewshaw, Dennis Alward and Roseleynn Lee.  Competition was stiff, I was the only applicant, they gave me the job and was ridden through the streets in triumph by my friend Teresa. I could recount how I was not a map person, knew next to nothing about the science of cartography and was only in it for the money but you can read all that on my tiny slice of a buddy's website at   In a nutshell, I was a freshly hatched egg and I had to take each and every map from the drawers and find out what it did and why it was here at Central. It took me several years to scratch the surface and during that time I fell deep in love with pictorial maps. That has little to do with this article except that this love finally was consummated by an exhibit at Central library and an article in the Mercator's World magazine: September/October 1999. For fifteen seconds my map collection was famous and appeared in two newspapers, one radio program, Los Angeles magazine's to do list and the WAML Bulletin (the Western Association of Map Librarians.) This also meant I was photographed in my Harry Potter-like round spectacles, a holdover from the 1980's. My daughter has never let me forget that.  Despite my many entreaties to Toria and LAPL bigwigs to have another exhibit of my maps my career seems to be as dead as Millie Vanilli's. I can't even get on the card at Branson, Mo.

     Anyone who wants a tale of the map collection in a succinct fashion can always look at but that really doesn"t tell you how these letters on the screen can help in answering reference questions or helping students gain some understanding of history. We have about 100,000 maps now, the bulk of which are United States Geological Survey topographic maps of the entire country. They typically cover about 64 square miles per quadrangle and show the physical features of the landscape. The library keeps all USGS maps on California even after they are made obsolete by newer editions. Older topo maps for California are placed in a precious historical file. Discarded maps of other states are used to wrap my Christmas presents each year.

     There are nautical charts of both domestic and international shores. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration creates the ones of say Santa Monica bay and the Defense Mapping Agency would get you the coastline of any country you wanted to invade since they had weapons of mass destruction or something like that. In the same vain we also have aeronautical charts for air lanes across the globe and as close as the horrors of LAX. Of note and frequent use is the Army Map Service map collection that pretty much got LAPL's map room on the map. These dandies from the late 30's and 40's are detailed topographical looks at places that no longer exist in the case of bombed out Europe and are favored by genealogists trying to find Uncle Heinrich's birthplace and historians trying to determine just who ruled Danzig when. In the new and improved drawers you will find other curiosities and useful cartography including detailed maps of the Vietnam war, maps of the U.S -Mexican border, maps of the United Kingdom, Canada and even Antarctica. Once, I found chicken bones and a Penthouse magazine in the atlas cases.

     For local history, Central has an impressive map archive that can even be considered fun stuff at dinner parties. Here you will learn what charming name your neighborhood had back in the old days. It might be Zelzah or Garvanza or one of my favorites: Mesmer. You can see where the streetcars ran, follow the Zanja Madre through the Pueblo or even discover exactly where those good time houses were in old Chinatown. There is a fine copy of the copy of the Ord Survey of 1849 that Colonel Ord marched over the saw grass of the old town to measure and a roller map of East L.A. that even City Hall's sacred map vault did not own. There are maps of California when it was thought of as an island, atlases showing the immigrants best trails westward post potato famine and auto club foldouts and street guides taking us back to before Central stood at 630 W. 5th street. H.H. Stevenson made a fascinating color plat map which shows the owners of the tracts around downtown done in 1888 which is astounding in its detail and Hansen's county-wide from the 1870's shows plainly how the city began as a block at the Plaza and then tilted at Hoover and became a grid. Another dear treasure is a minutely rendered Birdseye map of the city done in 1909. Every building from the courthouse to that so called University down by the Sizzler sits in relief.

    Probably the most rewarding of all resources are the Sanborn Fire Insurance atlases that show us neighborhoods in great detail as far back as 1888. One of the many wonders of Sanborn research is the old-fashioned serendipity of discovering what was in a hood at a time lost from personal memory. The irony of the site of Central library once being inhabited by "the Normal School" never ceases to amuse me. When Historic Resources Group gave a gift of some sixty volumes of these beauties to the collection this Summer it gave new meaning to urban discovery. Seeing the familiar volumes covering places like Hollywood, Glendale, Venice and even my own Glassell Park in living color with little patches of pasted over corrections on the sheets makes history come alive. Patrons who labor under the hallucination that somewhere there is a history of every house on planet earth might even be astounded to see their dear little craftsman actually on the map right next to the tuberculosis hospital or a school for wayward girls. It further amazes me to encounter the occasional Silverlake hipster-historian who views the 1950's in L.A. as if it were a time when saber toothed tigers roamed wild and wooly mammoths thudded down Figueroa.

     The map collection is not just a bunch of paper stuffed in musty old drawers. It is a living and breathing resource that can give insight, answer mysteries and explain the path of this ramshackle city some 200 plus years after the fundadores picked a cozy place near the Porciuncula River. It is detailed Gillespie, Renie and Thomas brother's street guides to the county going back to 1925. These dandies will show you stuff like the location of Wrigley Field where the PCL Angels played or Queen of Angels hospital where millions of Angelenos first saw the world. They contain not expected answers to phone exchanges, early postal codes, pre-freeway neighborhoods and the dreaded street railway questions. LO-67773, yeah that was my phone number back when those mastodons roamed. There is also the incredible microform set of Historic Maps of Los Angeles that reach back to the mid-nineteenth century and provide printable maps of everything from lovers lane in 1871 to the Payne map of downtown done in 1931 showing each and every building including the cool Hamburgers Department store. Want to trip the light of memory fantastic? You can pick up the Nirenstein atlas from those far away 50's that gives a plat map and aerial photo of prime retail streets on the west coast including Broadway, Hollywood boulevard and North Hollywood's Lankersheim.

     This could go on and on like the thousands of sheets of history held in these atlases and map sets but I really should return to the original thesis. You can explain it all in intellectual terms but the reward of the struggle is evident in one little story. Once upon a time I went drawer by drawer looking at each and every map we owned. Things like the pictorials broke up the boredom and others claimed a spot of fascination in my imagination. All of this scrutiny paid off one sleepy Tuesday afternoon in the mid-90's.  A dapper Chinese gentleman asked if we might have a map of Shanghai before the Japanese occupation. A little spark fired back in the vestiges of my brain and five minutes later I spread out a glorious map done of the old city in 1934. The man's face literally glowed as he bent to inspect this rare thing, so long forgotten in the drawers. I returned to mundane tasks for a few minutes and returned to find my patron with tears streaming down his face. This humble sheet of paper, filled with symbols of a city seventy years lost unlocked some sweet memories, sweet enough to bring him back to his childhood and the joy he knew in Shanghai once. He held my gaze and shook my hand with vigor unexpected from a gent of his years. He thanked me, he blest me, he explained about losing his sister in the war. This "A new directory map of Shanghai" by Chia-yung Soo took him once again to the streets he had shared with that sister, to places of joy and innocence.  The ghastly "why do you work down there" question was answered for me in the gratitude of this gentleman. What he took from our library was dear to his heart, dear indeed to all people everywhere.

Author Glen Creason is a reference librarian in the history and genealogy department of the Los Angeles Public Library and has been the library's map specialist for the past fifteen years. He is also a food and entertainment writer for the Los Cerritos Community News, a cartoonist, and the father of a formerly teenage daughter.

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