Theft and Vandalism of Books, Manuscripts, and Related Materials in Public and Academic Libraries, Archives, and Special Collections.

Author:Higgins, Silke P.

Clipping, defacing, misplacing, and stealing books exist in varying degrees in every busy library. Current magazines, bound magazines, and reference books suffer the greatest loss. To have rules printed in a handbook or posted in the library is not sufficient; they must be taught.

--Maud Minster Book Theft and Mutilation (Minster, 1942, p. 264)

I have known men to hazard their fortunes, go long journeys halfway about the world, forget friendships, even lie, cheat, and steal, all for the gain of a book.

--A. S. W. Rosenbach The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (Bartlett, 2009, iv)

Theft and Vandalism in Libraries, Archives, and Special Collections

Theft of books and related materials--including, but not limited to, magazines, periodicals, newspapers, manuscripts, maps, and single-page items, as well as non-book items such as video tapes, DVDs, and CDs--in libraries, archives, and special collections is not a modern phenomenon. During the Middle Ages, monks and priests chained books to desks and shelves, and disseminated dire warnings detailing the horrible fate awaiting book thieves: Hanging, drowning, burning--or worse, an all-condemning, generation-inclusive curse (Shuman, 1999). The above example highlights both the long history and severity of book theft, and is of special interest when considered in context. Compared to today's seemingly endless supply of library materials available to everyone, few literary works were created in the 14th and 15th century. Tightly controlled and kept in supervised reading rooms, they were made accessible only to the literate population. Nonetheless, books kept disappearing from scriptoriums (Shuman, 1999).

In similar fashion, vandalism has been the long-time foe of the keepers of the written word. Arson, likely the most devastating expression of vandalism affecting the book world, is said to have been recorded as early as 48 B.C.E., when parts of the Library of Alexandria were set aflame during Caesar's conquest (Fishburn, 2008). Whereas book theft is primarily driven by the desire to possess the item, vandalism is the overt expression of underlying psychopathologies by means of "intentional destruction, defacement, and disfiguration" of "property not one's own" (Goldstein, 1996, pp. 21-22). Theft and vandalism cause costly and, in many instances, irreplaceable damage to the holdings of archives, libraries, and special collections.

According to the relevant literature consulted for this research paper, the most effective methods to minimize occurrences of these types of crimes are described as the placement of preventative measures and security devices (Bahr, 1981-82; Center & Lancaster, 2004; Cravey, 2001; Evans & Ward, 2007; Hunter, 2003; Shuman, 1999). If the solution is so clearly evident, the question inevitably must be why and how it is nonetheless possible that year after year, library materials vanish, while others are returned or found in various stages of mutilation.

Theft of Books and Related Materials

Who Steals Books and Related Materials

"Stealing library books and other materials has always cut across social lines. From available evidence, library book thieves throughout recorded history have included high-ranking officials and church elders, as well as librarians themselves" (Shuman, 1999, p. 6). Observations of this kind, as well as classics such as Nicholas Basbanes' A Gentle Madness (1999) and the more recent bestseller The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (2009), encourage the misleading belief that many intellectuals and some of those affiliated with the book profession suffer from bibliokleptomania, the uncontrollable and sometimes morbid desire to possess literary works. Rather than emphasizing the damage they cause, many of the bibliophiles and bibliomaniacs in these accounts are portrayed as helpless victims, unable to resist the calling of a much-desired object. However, it would be rash to summarily dismiss the existence of book theft caused by mental disorders. In fact, one of the most famous court cases involved a criminal defense so unique, that, until Stephen Carrie Blumberg's trial (which attempted to keep the master book thief out of prison) it had never been utilized in the American court system (Basbanes, 1995). When Stephen C. Blumberg was finally arrested in 1990, he had stolen "about 23,600 books from 268 libraries in forty-five states, two Canadian provinces, and the District of Columbia" (Basbanes, 1995, p. 467). Initially estimated at 20 million dollars, the "Blumberg Collection" focused on Americana, with some of the most valuable items originating from Harvard's Widener Library (Abbey Newsletter, 1991; Harvard Magazine, 1997). Upon Blumberg's apprehension by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), there was never a doubt as to whether he had in fact stolen most of the books found in his residence. Instead, the question everyone wanted answered was why he had stolen enough to fill 879 boxes that needed 17 people to pack over the course of two days, and required a "forty-foot tractor-trailer" to haul them away (Basbanes, 1995, p. 467). Court hearings revealed that Blumberg and members of his immediate family suffered from mental illness. During his youth, Stephen had undergone several evaluations and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, delusion, and severe compulsive tendencies (Basbanes, 1995). By the time he graduated from high school, Blumberg had, according to his father, "created his own Victorian world in his apartment" and decorated it with stolen doorknobs, stained-glass windows, and lampshades of considerable value. Identification with all aspects of Victorian life led Stephen to the discovery of rare books, first Victorian Americana and later anything he deemed worthwhile (Basbanes, 1995, p. 501). It was this complex history of mental illness and irrational behavior that prompted Blumberg's unique defense. Called by Stephen's attorneys, forensic psychiatrist Dr. William S. Logan testified that Blumberg experienced severe bouts of chronic delusional paranoid disorder, which made him believe in perpetual delusions of grandeur that he was a Victorian man destined to preserve historically significant Victorian artifacts and books (Basbane, 1995). Based upon Blumberg's psychiatric evaluations, Dr. Logan asked the court to find the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity, marking this the only time the rarely successful affirmative defense was used "to explain the consequences of criminal bibliomania" (Basbanes, 1995, p. 480). The court denied Logan's plea and Stephen was sentenced to 71 months in prison. He was released early for good behavior only to pick up right where he had left off (Harvard Review, 1997).

In contrast to the mentally ill, persons stealing for profit exude very little respect for literary works. Instead, they are "the most serious of predators to library materials" and are quite often "meticulous, clever, and unlikely to make mistakes" (Shuman, 1999, p. 31). This is especially true where rare and valuable items are involved: Planning grand-scheme heists takes time, effort, and subject knowledge. In 1964, Robert Bradford Murphy and his wife Elizabeth were arrested by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged with the crime of "theft of government property and interstate transportation of stolen property" (Shuman, 1999, p. 38). The FBI confiscated six suitcases filled with documents from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), among them letters from Presidents "Monroe, Jackson, Lincoln, Cleveland, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Kennedy" (Shuman, 1999, p. 38). Many years of theft...

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