J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

the Forbes Smiley effect

On Thursday, as the New York Times and Hartford Courant and other papers reported, antique map dealer E. Forbes Smiley III pleaded guilty to stealing a very rare map, "an object of cultural heritage," from Beinecke Library at Yale. In court he also admitted to stealing 96 other maps from a total of seven libraries.

I've done research at Beinecke, and back in college I had a part-time job in another Yale library, so I've followed this case with some curiosity. Nonetheless, I was surprised to read that the Assistant U.S. Attorney who prosecuted it is the older brother of one of my college roommates. (Smiley himself is not a Yalie; he just sounds like he should be, which no doubt helped with his dealings.)

But the carefree days of the past are gone. As the Map Room blog picked up, the Courant has reported on backroom firings at Yale. And since Smiley was arrested in June 2005, I've found several archives have made their security procedures for researchers more strict—an understandable phenomenon I call "the Smiley effect."

Only one archive I've visited before and after the thefts didn't seem to have visibly tighter security: the Boston Public Library Rare Books Department. Ironically, the Times says, "Boston Public Library suffered the biggest loss in terms of numbers. It lost 34 maps to Mr. Smiley, according to an accounting by federal prosecutors." And two of those are in the "unrecoverable" category. But, like a lot of public libraries, the BPL may already be stretching its funding and staff as far as they can go. All the more reason to support our public institutions.

Smiley's cobwebsite continues to offer maps. In fact, it's useful for a bigger view of the exquisite Henry Pelham map of besieged Boston I mentioned yesterday. But who knows where that came from?

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