Sometimes UCLA's Henry Bruman Map Library--academia's largest--is a footnote in an adventure.
That was the case in 1983 when two men, carrying what they said was a treasure map drawn by 17th-Century pirate William Kidd, approached the library's staff. The men explained that they hoped to find an island in the real world identical to the island on their map. Library staffer Jonnie Hargis helped them sift through some of the 750,000 maps in the collection. Finally, Hargis recalled, "we found an area off the coast of Vietnam that matched the chart."
Convinced that the pirate's treasure was buried somewhere on Phu Quoc, a Vietnamese-held island in the Gulf of Thailand, the men went to Thailand, where they rented a speedboat and secretly sailed to Phu Quoc. But before the treasure hunters could start shoveling in earnest, they were arrested by Vietnamese officials. Held for months in solitary confinement, they were finally released after their families bribed authorities.
"We get some real oddballs and a lot of idle browsers," said Hargis, who says there is a romance or magic about maps that fascinates many people. Among the other treasure hunters Hargis has assisted: a man looking for submerged Nazi gold in German lakes and others seeking lost California gold mines.
As map librarian Carlos Hagen-Lautrup explained, the major purpose of the library is to serve the university's academic enterprise. But it is open to the public as well. As a result, users include everyone from an astrologer who regularly calls asking for the precise coordinates of clients' birthplaces for use in preparing their astrological charts to people who are planning trips and want to study street maps of Cracow or Buenos Aires before they go. And, Hargis said, "every time there's a quake, you can count on a surge of fault maps being pulled."
The makers of the movie "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" found old maps of Africa in the collection that bore the colonial names in use during the period of their film. Environmental consultants come to the library to study maps of Los Angeles for evidence of factories or other past use that might preclude present-day development of a particular parcel of land. And library staffer Portia Chambliss once helped a visitor determine the neighborhood where Charles Dickens' lame but game Tiny Tim would have probably lived by consulting a descriptive map of London poverty from 1889.
Indeed, the staff prides itself on being able to find the right map--or nautical chart--for almost any visitor. The only time Chambliss recalls being stumped was when she was asked for a map of Iraq in the 15th Century that showed climatic conditions and rainfall. "That was impossible."
The map library was founded in 1961 by the former chairman of the geography department for whom it is named. It has been headed since 1962 by Hagen-Lautrup, a Chilean-born geographer and engineer who has tried to make it a cartographic information center, not just a map room. "It's the information that counts, not the medium," said Hagen-Lautrup. As a result, most of the truly old maps in the collection, with the exception of a 1600 map of Flanders, are reproductions, not originals. Visitors can handle the reproductions more readily than originals, and the library does not need to take elaborate security precautions to protect them.
The library is a depository for maps issued by agencies of the U.S. government and several other countries, Hagen-Lautrup said. But in the last decade or so, collecting has been complicated by the skyrocketing price of maps. "Many governments want to use maps as a source of income, especially Third World countries," said Hagen-Lautrup, who has seen prices rise from a dollar or two per map to $15 or $20.
Some maps are hard to get at any price, he said. Ostensibly because of concerns about national security, "Colombia and Bolivia don't sell detailed maps to anybody," he said. Detailed maps of the People's Republic of China are also hard to come by, but the library has an excellent collection of Chinese city plans put together in China by a former UCLA student visiting that country.
Housed in a warren of rooms in the basement of Bunche Hall (the UCLA building that looks like a giant waffle), the collection has yet to be catalogued in full, although all the maps have been categorized using a standardized system for maps comparable to those used for books. Special strengths of the collection, the librarian said, include materials related to the Mideast, Africa, Latin America, the Pacific islands, city plans and early California. Materials don't circulate, but patrons can make copies to take home.