L.A. Public Library's 'Million Maps' -- From Collector to Curator

Find a Way Home
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Glen Creason is an author and map librarian at the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, and co-curator in 2008 of the exhibition "LA Unfolded: Maps from the Los Angeles Public Library." Glen also is the somewhat overwhelmed recipient of an unknown number of maps -- one estimate was a million -- retrieved at the last minute from the Mount Washington home of the late John Feathers.

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I had the pleasure of writing the introduction to Glen's wonderful book Los Angeles in Maps in 2010. And he and I will get together again later in November to talk about the city's map collection at a library foundation event. The astonishing "million map" discovery will surely be on everyone's mind.

John Feathers wasn't on anyone's list of important map collectors when, following his death in February, his small home was found to be stuffed with every sort of map, from ancient charts to contemporary atlases. Only after real estate broker Matthew Greenberg brought the hoard to light was the extent of Feathers' collecting apparent.

The number of maps probably isn't a million, but they total well over ten thousand.

Feathers was a born collector of maps, according to his father. He had twin passions for actual travel and the vicarious traveling that maps inspire. Beginning with service station maps and the maps that come with National Geographic magazines, Feathers built a world of paper continents, countries, and neighborhoods from Torrance to Timbuktu.

That world had its compensations -- the neatly gridded spaces on printed sheets, the ability to fold a whole landscape into one's pocket, the superman leaps any map allows. But that world had its demands, too. Collecting put Feathers deep in debt at times. At his death, the thousands of maps overwhelmed his home, flowed out of boxes and off shelves, and lay in piles. The paper world Feathers made ended in chaos. It was slated to be dumped as junk until Matthew Greenberg called Glen Creason.

Glen is now the Magellan of that almost lost world, already sorting and cataloging Feathers' maps so that they can become a useful part of the library's collection (expanding it to one of the largest in the nation).

We ought to lay aside the pathetic aspects of Feathers' story -- the daily arrival of UPS trucks with boxes of maps, the obsession with charting distant places that made Feathers' own home almost unlivable, the compulsions that prevented Feathers from seeing all the connections through time and space to which his maps might have guided him.

Better to linger over Feathers' maps, some with obvious collector value but many more thousands that are the perfectly ordinary maps of the places a liberated imagination might go. And now, with Glen's help, any of us can find our way there.

[Correction: an earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the collector of maps. His surname is Feathers.]

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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