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Jonas is a Czech émigré who came to this country and Harvard in 1968. She was at first a laboratory assistant at the Biological Laboratories and then entered the graduate school, earning a master's degree in 1972. She became in turn reference librarian at the Cabot Science Library (part of the Harvard College Library) and then, in 1978, head of the departmental library at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.
"From my first day at this job," says Jonas, "I began to get reports from the staff that books were missing--Audubon first editions, and so on--and that some had been missing for ages. Nothing had been done about it. Security at the library had been very lax."
Nancy Cline and Lawrence Dowler, librarian and associate librarian of the Harvard College Library. "We will be well-mannered," says Cline, "but we need to be tough."
After consultation with Roger Stoddard and William H. Bond, librarian of the Houghton Library, she asked Oscar Handlin, Loeb University Professor and recently appointed director of the Harvard University Library, for permission to publish the list of missing items. "I stated evidence that I believed showed that the theft was an inside job and asked for an FBI investigation on the grounds that these valuable stolen books had crossed state lines," says Jonas. "Permission to publish was granted, but the investigation was delayed for several months, despite my repeated requests. I had so much documentation of the thefts, I thought I didn't need to push. Later, I even found a volume for sale in England that had been stolen from us recently."
Jonas published the list of missing books in the trade journal Antiquarian Bookman to alert reputable dealers to the losses. "Librarians have been generally hesitant or resistant to disclosing losses," the publisher of the journal told the Boston Globe, saying that "a strong tradition remains to not broadcast too widely" news of thefts from libraries. The Globe quoted one dealer's assessment that "many of the missing books are among the most beautiful books ever published in the history of mankind" and also noted that "Harvard officials will not discuss the value of the missing material and attempt to minimize the loss."
At the time of Jonas's appointment, a friend of the library had provided funds for Jonas to use as she liked. She decided to take inventory. She engaged a professional bibliographer to help with the task. They discovered that 240 rare titles (340 volumes) worth about $400,000 were gone. Fifty of the books were folio atlases of colored or engraved plates; in many cases the books were parts of sets, and the text volumes had been left behind. They also found that 1,282 plates, with an estimated value of $100,000, had been cut from rare volumes still on the shelves. As the discovery process unfolded, Jonas published 17 additional lists of missing property in Antiquarian Bookman.
All records concerning about 10 percent of the missing books had been removed from the library's card catalog, a circumstance strongly suggesting to Jonas that an insider was involved. How could anyone, Jonas included, know that the library had ever possessed a book not on the shelf and not described in the card catalog? As it happened, the firm of G.K. Hall of Boston had published a multivolume printed catalog of the collection in 1968. Jonas knew from that record what rare books she was supposed to have.
Several months passed with no action apparent to Jonas taken to recover the library's books. Trails, already cool, were growing cold. She became increasingly agitated. Jonas is a passionate person, with a strong sense of right and wrong and clear views about how a great university should behave. At a meeting with associate general counsel Edward Powers, Stoddard, and other administrators, she literally pounded on the table demanding action. "She just kept hammering away on that issue," says Stoddard. Handlin and the general counsel's office asked the FBI to investigate the thefts.
When officials announced that the FBI was coming, a few little piles of missing books turned up on the library's doorstep, left anonymously.
The FBI agent dispatched to the library knew nothing of books or record-keeping in libraries at first, Jonas recalls. "He thought a rare book was a $25 book at the airport newsstand." Nowadays, the FBI has special units devoted to investigating the theft of art and antiquities. FBI press officer Joe Valiquette says that the New York squad, which will travel, has 12 to 15 agents who maintain "a close working relationship with museums and galleries and attend seminars and workshops organized by the art community."
Jonas thought that one of her staff members was complicitous in the crimes and sought her removal in order to conduct the inventory "without manipulative interference." The woman threatened a defamation suit, Jonas was told. The Harvard administration held a hearing, but, says Powers, no evidence was found against the staff member, who soon took a new job at the business school. Harvard asked the FBI to suspend its investigation. Months after the active investigation ended, FBI agents took Jonas to many "shady bookstores" in Manhattan to search for the library's property. In the end, few books were recovered and no thief was caught.
But attitudes at Harvard about how to respond when robbed had been changed by the case, and certain outsiders applauded. "Rare-book dealers were angry at Harvard and other universities because they wouldn't admit publicly that their books had been stolen, but they wanted dealers to give stolen books back if they got any," says Jonas. "One day during all this fuss I was making, two dealers came to the museum and one of them, who was unknown to me, kneeled down and kissed my hand."
At the time these events occurred, the laws in Massachusetts, as in many states, did not punish book thieves severely. Laws were changing in some states, due to lobbying by librarians that began in earnest after the arrest of James Shinn in December 1981. Shinn, who pleaded guilty to his crimes and received two consecutive 10-year prison terms, was regarded as the greatest of American book thieves until Blumberg came along and usurped the title. Shinn had demonstrated the vulnerability of libraries, and legislators in some states were giving librarians weapons with which to defend themselves.
Jonas asked Handlin to lobby the Massachusetts legislature, but he believed it would be of no help and did not do so, she says. When he retired and Verba became director of the University Library in 1984, she went to Verba and asked him to push for passage of a bill introduced by Rep. Salvatore Ciccarelli that would make many instances of book theft felony offenses and would protect librarians from defamation suits if they expressed legitimate suspicions about library patrons or staff. Says Jonas, "Verba acted and we soon had the new laws."
William Bond told Jonas at the time of the thefts that the 1968 printed catalog of the museum library collection, so helpful to her, might have triggered the thefts by calling to the attention of prospecting thieves the location of desirable plunder. Bond has written that "in the 1930s a gang directed from New York made a devastating sweep through the Americana section of the open stack in Widener, based upon the classic bibliographies of Evans and Sabin." Dowler believes that thievery has been advanced by today's electronics. While honest browsers can sit at home and learn with their computers that Harvard has such and such a book and it is in this particular library and it is, indeed, reportedly on the shelf, thieves can do their shopping that way, too.
The record of book theft from Harvard libraries in the early decades of this century is thin. The staff at the Harvard University Archives can produce a file on one Charles Cameron, a student of Canadian history, apprehended in 1900 for removing 100 to 200 fancy, engraved bookplates from books on the shelves and selling them to collectors for a total of about $800. Expenses of the College in investigating the losses amounted to $1,500, including $173.77 paid to the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
In 1931 Joel C. Williams, A.M. '09, Ed.M. '29, a former instructor at Groton and a former high-school principal, was caught with 2,504 stolen Widener books at his home in Dedham, Massachusetts. He said he was preparing himself for a college professorship. His thieving had begun eight or 10 years before, but had stopped a year and a half before he was caught when, according to a newspaper account, "extraordinary steps were taken by the Harvard authorities to prevent students 'sneaking' books out of the library without permission. A turnstile was erected at that time and suspicious bundles were ordered examined." An editorial writer in the Boston Post said that the case "suggests impaired mentality." When the books came back to Widener, librarians had an acerbic bookplate printed and affixed to each volume. It reads, "This book was stolen from Harvard College Library. It was later recovered. The thief was sentenced to two years at hard labor. 1932." A security measure of sorts.
The Archives also contains a slight scrapbook of clippings about Harold B. Clarke, a New Yorker arrested in Revere, Massachusetts, in 1931 and said in the press to be head of a book-theft ring with annual profits of $500,000. Spokesmen variously put the value of books taken from Widener at $10,000 to $40,000. One of the books found in Clarke's possession bore a bookplate that read: "From the Library of Harry Elkins Widener." It was a copy of A. Edward Newton's The Amenities of Book Collecting.
The modern era of book thievery at Harvard may be said to have begun on the night of August 19, 1969, with a brazen attempt to steal the Gutenberg Bible from the Widener Memorial Rooms in Widener Library, an affair William Bond chronicled for readers of this magazine in "The Gutenberg Caper" (March-April 1986). The would-be thief hid himself in a men's room on the top floor of the library. After closing hours he stepped out of the window of the lavatory onto the roof of the Memorial Rooms at the center of the hollow square in the middle of Widener. He took a rope from his knapsack, lowered himself to a window, broke it, entered, smashed the case containing the bible, put the treasure in his knapsack, went back out the window, and attempted to climb up his knotted rope to the roof. But he had failed to reckon that the two-volume bible, massively bound, weighs some 70 pounds. He could not manage the climb with his laden knapsack. His rope was too short to reach the courtyard six floors below, from which he could easily have effected an escape. He apparently hung for a time, but then he dropped, landing on the bible. He lived, but was considerably the worse for his adventure.
The paucity of data on book theft in the first two-thirds of the century may not mean that those were less larcenous times, but only that book theft was apt to go unreported then. "One has to take into account the differential visibility of things in different eras," says Verba.
Librarians at Princeton University thought they could identify an upwelling of theft there in the early 1970s, and the criminal instincts of the inmates of Harvard and Princeton may not be dissimilar. A thorough inventory of its libraries in 1978 uncovered for Princeton officials the dismaying fact that 4.3 percent of the nearly two million volumes supposed to be in Firestone Library's open stacks had disappeared, along with almost 10 percent of the materials in the branch libraries. A report at the time in the Princeton Alumni Weekly quoted professor Laurence Stone: "We used to be assured that books we couldn't find on the shelves were in the pipeline somewhere, being processed. It was only last year that we found out this is not the case. The books are not misshelved, stacked up waiting for cataloging, down at the bindery, sitting in carrels...the damn stuff's gone."
Charting book theft is difficult in part because libraries are most often ignorant of whether or not they've been robbed. When the FBI tried to find the owners of the books Blumberg had stolen, "every institution we called, without exception, either had no idea what they lost, or didn't understand the extent of their losses," special agent W. Dennis Aiken told reporter Basbanes. Regular inventories at large libraries are infeasible. Widener did its last one sometime in the 1940s, says Dowler.
No doubt speaking for many librarians, Stoddard told Basbanes: "We have twelve and a half million books at Harvard. As a practical matter, you discover that a book is missing when someone wants it, because until you check your records and determine that a book is not signed out, you have no reason to suspect it has been stolen. Harvard alone has one hundred separate libraries. There is no way to monitor every book in a large institution and provide access for students at the same time. That is why libraries are such vulnerable places."
How many times a year does someone want a book from Widener and the book cannot be found? Widener is an open-stack library, and so even this basic question cannot be answered. If a patron goes into the stack, discovers that a wanted book that should be on the shelf is not, and simply shrugs the matter off, the library staff has no way of knowing about the errant book. If the patron reports the matter, a trace can be done. Widener traces some 4,000 titles a year. "In about 75 percent of the cases, the missing books are found," Dowler says. "There are various reasons patrons can't locate books, but most often it is because they have made an incorrect citation of the location or because of other such errors made by patrons or by library staff--misshelving, desk-worker error, and so forth. We may have as many as 1,000 books that can't be readily located during the course of a year. Given the size and complexity of the library system, the rate of theft seems quite small, which makes the notable cases of theft we uncover all the more frustrating."
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