From vanished villages to grand plans, Hayes draws a picture of our past and bundles it up in his eye-catching books.

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IT STARTED with postage stamps — those tiny icons of geography, history and politics from all over the globe. Derek Hayes, a young lad in England, collected them. “I could tell you the capitals of the world,” Hayes remembers. “I liked knowing where things were.”

Well, yes. The young stamp collector became a geography major at the University of Hull. He emigrated to Canada. He got a job working as a city planner in Vancouver, B.C., then launched a gardening-products business, which led to a gardening-books business.

A nicely sedate business for a bookish guy. Then, one summer in the mid-1970s, Hayes and his wife were rummaging through bric-a-brac in an English shop, looking for some wall art. “We found this old map of North America that showed Russian territory,” he remembers. “I had no idea that Alaska had been Russian territory! We bought the map.”

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Most of us, happy that the map matched the couch, would have stopped there. But in Hayes, it triggered something. “I started trying to date maps — trying to figure out why this was here and that was there,” he recalls. He started to collect maps and images of maps. Everywhere. Shops. Sales. Archives. eBay. “It’s amazing, what you can buy on eBay,” Hayes says with a faraway look in his eye.

On business trips to England he would linger an extra couple of days, hanging with the clerks at Britain’s Naval Archives. There you could, at your leisure, look through Capt. George Vancouver’s original surveys of the Northwest Coast. “It was very homey,” Hayes muses. “Halfway through the morning, the tea lady would come through.”

He was a little shocked at the Brits’ casual attitude toward very old stuff. He found a 6-by-6-foot map of Captain Cook’s 1765 survey of the coast of Newfoundland, produced by Cook himself. When Hayes started unrolling it, it started to crumble in his hands. “They weren’t going to stop me,” Hayes says, “but I wasn’t going to watch history disintegrate in my hands.”

Hayes had been captured by the multiple passions of the collector: the need to find, the need to preserve, the need to unearth the next treasure. Luckily for his fans, he had one more urge: the need to share. In the late 1990s he began to wonder if he could merge his map collection with his passion for history and his expertise in book publishing. “I thought, this stuff is interesting. Maybe someone else would be interested.”

In 1999, Hayes self-published his first book, “Historical Atlas of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest,” in Canada. He brought it over the border and showed it to the people at Seattle’s Sasquatch Books.

Sasquatch publisher Gary Luke remembers when Hayes brought it in:

“It was a totally beautiful book. We had never seen a book like that before.”

Hayes, says Luke, was “one of these completely original authors who was completely passionate about a topic and was so deep into it, the result was unique.”

Published in this country as the “Historical Atlas of the Pacific Northwest,” it sold 31,000 copies on both sides of the border (it’s still in print). Hayes followed it with a book about Canadian explorer Alexander Mackenzie, then historical atlases of the North Pacific Ocean, Canada and the Arctic, among others. In 2006, Hayes’ book “Historical Atlas of the United States” was published by the prestigious University of California Press, which has remained his U.S. publisher ever since.

NOW HAYES has come back full circle to the Northwest with his 15th book, “Historical Atlas of Washington and Oregon” (University of California Press, $39.95).

David Wrobel, Merrick Chair in Western American History at the University of Oklahoma, served on a peer-review committee for Hayes’ UC Press books. Wrobel says Hayes’ books are a “visual delight,” smartly organized and well-written.

But beyond that, they embody an “expansive vision” of the historical-atlas genre, Wrobel wrote in an email: “A historical atlas should be more than a mere collection of maps that illustrate the cartographic representation of a place over time . . . All of the traditional cartographic images that one would expect within the pages of a historical atlas appear in his works, but they do so along with a wonderfully rich array of other sources including satellite maps, promotional posters, photographs (both contemporary and concurrent), and paintings.”

To leaf through a Hayes atlas is a bit like a solitary ramble through a museum (the Victoria and Albert in London comes to mind) with no guard to check you as you rummage through the cupboards. A treasure here, a surprise there, a little shock at what people in the past were thinking. A map drawn by William Clark himself. Vanished villages (Champoeg, Ore.). King County evacuation routes, in the event a nuclear bomb was dropped on Seattle.

Hayes’ new book starts with the first maps of our area, among the last in the world that Europeans explored. These fanciful creations, with made-up coastlines and half-unicorn sea creatures, were designed by mapmakers who were “trying to sell maps. They didn’t want to have a blank space,” Hayes says. A sea monster or two filled the gaps nicely.

There are maps hand-drawn by explorers and sketches of early Northwest settlements by English spies, from the era when the governance of the Northwest was still up for grabs. Inevitably, there are few maps produced by Native Americans. “This is not to say that aboriginal people did not make maps; indeed they did, and sometimes these maps were given to, and used by, explorers in the construction of their own maps,” Hayes wrote in his first book. “But the predominantly oral tradition of the native peoples means that few native maps survive today.”

There are maps of bad times. A hand-drawn map of Seattle’s Hooverville, a Depression-era homeless camp; a World War II plan for the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast. There are maps of grand schemes and doomed dreams — Frederick Law Olmsted’s never-implemented city plan for Tacoma; a map plotting four different routes for cross-Puget Sound floating bridges. Adding color and spice to the mix are pamphlets, postcards and posters that capture the zeitgeist of decades gone by.

Hayes especially admires “bird’s-eye maps,” created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to promote cities all over America. First, a framework of streets would be prepared, then artists “walked the streets, sketching trees, buildings and other features as though seen from an elevation of 600 to 900 metres (2,000 to 3,000 feet),” Hayes wrote in his first book. “No mean task with no means of actually looking at the scene from above!”

HAYES’ ATLASES bring to mind the inevitable question: In the record of our digital era, what will the future have to look back on? This connoisseur worries about the future of atlases, books and bookstores. In an age of Google Maps and GPS, what will become of maps as works of art?

To be sure, that same digital technology has aided his gathering of material for future books. Hayes mostly collects images of maps, not the maps themselves, which remain in museums and private collections. Digital photography and printing have streamlined his life’s work. He estimates that he has 12,000 images in his archive.

Hayes is president of the Historical Map Society of British Columbia, and he recently helped a museum in the B.C. interior that was “de-accessioning” (getting rid of) the maps that didn’t pertain to its location. “I managed to find homes for most of those,” he says.

It’s a race against time.

Hayes knows that maps, however beautiful and informative, are the most ephemeral of objects. “The material you do have to work with,” he says, “is a very, very small fraction of what has survived.”

Mary Ann Gwinn is The Seattle Times book editor.

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