Anders Kvernberg discovers treasure in his own backyard
When the map is the treasure—rare atlas discovered in library’s collection
Everyone dreams of discovering treasure: Jack who climbed the beanstalk, those who quested for El Dorado, and even us when we hope we’ve purchased the winning lottery ticket. Anders Kvernberg, Research Librarian at Nasjonalbiblioteket, the National Library of Norway, was the lucky Aladdin who found his magic lamp, lying right under his nose—sort of.
A self-identified map-geek, Anders Kvernberg answers research inquiries by digging through the library’s collection. By chance, he came upon a beautifully executed and hand-colored atlas, whose text was written in a foreign alphabet. He could deduce that it was from the Ottoman World and the date of its creation, 1803.
Interestingly, the use of the social media bulletin board, Reddit, of which Kvernberg is an enthusiastic user, assisted in determining the value of this rare artifact. Kvernberg scanned and posted some pages on the site.
As stated in an NPR interview with Kvenberg on January 15, 2016, “a few weeks later, Kvernberg was browsing /r/MapPorn when he saw something familiar: a page from the same atlas he’d scanned, uploaded by someone else. And this time, one of the commenters had identified the title: the Cedid Atlas Tercumesi, one of the first printed atlases from the Muslim world. Only 50 copies had ever been printed, and only 14 were known to still exist.” The one at the Oslo library makes 15. “The paper, the marks from the printing plate and the binding all confirmed it was an original copy, not a later duplicate,” according to the interview.
And of course after the discovery, the provenance of the item became important. Fortunately, there was a signature of the prior owner inside the atlas cover. It was attributed to an Oslo-based textile importer. It is presumed that he purchased the atlas on one of his travels to the Balkans in 1937. That was fortuitous because “this was just a couple of years before the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia, which led to widespread material destruction throughout the country. So it’s possible that when this guy bought it and brought it out of the country, he may just have saved it from destruction,” explained Kvernberg. It was also ideal because the library stored it in optimum archival conditions after it came into the library’s possession as a donation about 50 years ago.
Why hadn’t the library realized its significance earlier? No one knows for sure. Perhaps it was because the atlas had not previously been digitally shared, so only a few knew of its existence, and according to the interview, “No one inside the library, apparently, knew it was so rare.”
Perhaps it can also be attributed to the fact that this collection has had many incarnations. The library, established in Oslo in 1813, served as both the university’s and nation’s library. In 1989, a branch of the national library that would serve as a repository for its collection was sent to Rana, far removed from the other location—455 miles to be exact. This repository was to store all materials published in Norway. Just 10 years after the Rana site was opened, a decision was made to fuse the two missions. It took about six years for original library building to be renovated and it was ready in 2005 as a new Norwegian institution.
This story indicates that the institution has an enormous collection that it has done an excellent job preserving. As they continue to digitalize their archive, I am sure that more hidden gems will come to light.
The other thing this story reveals is that even with all of our technology, nothing can compare to the feeling of discovering a hidden piece of an archival treasure: whether you find a rare atlas like Kvenberg or the signatures of your great-grandparents from the passenger list of the ship on which they emigrated to America.
Now, if they could only find proof of the Viking maps historians believed Columbus consulted. Fingers crossed.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 5, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.