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If the stacks of Widener were closed to patrons, would the rate of theft be nil? Not likely. Human beings work there--475 full time and 1,000 part time--and outsiders such as Blumberg have little trouble getting into closed stacks. Houghton Library, the College's sanctum sanctorum of rare books, is a fortress. Yet, to the question, "Has there ever been a book stolen from Houghton?" Stoddard says, "Probably so. At any given time there are 10 things we can't find. And then somebody will add an eleventh and take two away."

"I've almost never gotten a complaint about Widener being an uninviting place," says Verba. "But once in a while some student or visiting faculty member will tell me that he went to the Houghton Library and really got nervous because people seemed to be looking over his shoulder, they checked him in and checked him out, he had to put all his bags outside, and he was watched carefully to see whether he was using a pencil or pen. That creates a slightly chilly atmosphere. You would not want the Houghton atmosphere to be the atmosphere of all the libraries at Harvard. In a way, we don't want it to be the atmosphere of Houghton, but it's a necessity."

Roger Stoddard, curator of rare books, at Houghton Library. He's kept his eye on theft from libraries throughout the world.

"Just about every security measure we take cuts into the life of the College," says Steiner. "It reduces the civility of the place."

Easy access to books is pedagogically desirable. "Oscar Handlin used to say that you had to surround the students with books every way you could--in the Houses, in the departmental libraries, in the undergraduate libraries--just to see if you could get them to pick one up and read it," says Stoddard. "You have to be aggressive in thrusting books at the students. How do you open up collections without accepting a degree of vulnerability?"

"We are by a huge amount the largest open-stack library in the country," says Verba. "Nobody but the staff can get into the Library of Congress stacks or the stacks of the New York Public Library. We let people in, and that's an absolutely crucial part of the service we provide. I value it as a scholar. But it does create a dilemma. It makes you more vulnerable. The faculty discuss from time to time whether we should close the stacks, both because of theft and because stacks that are closed and managed professionally are more orderly. We've decided it's just not worth it."

Handlin subscribes to that decision but for different reasons. "Our open-stack policy is not dangerous or damaging. Certainly, there are major thefts. The bigger losses come from misshelving books. Put a book on the wrong shelf and it's as good as gone until somebody finds it by accident. Misshelved books are less likely to be found in a closed-stack library. The problem of not being able to find books is greater at the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress than at Harvard."

"The University culture is geared toward openness and frank discussion," says Harvard police chief Francis Riley. "There will be an adverse reaction to any attempt to restrict access to facilities. For example, there have been bomb threats in University buildings. Security measures could be put in place that would minimize these problems, but the community as a culture isn't willing to do that."

"We have had in this country a longstanding commitment to the free exchange of ideas," says Cline. "Our entire educational enterprise is founded on that. The free flow of information has been so significant in advancing research, science, and technology. As an educator, I have spent a quarter century in academic libraries and have seen the beauty of people discovering information, the serendipity of it all, and I know that access is extremely important. You can spoonfeed, you can custom tailor a packet of information, and give it to people, and they will learn it. But if you want them to learn how to learn, to become capable of using information for a lifetime, then they need access to a broad base of information resources. It's what makes our system of libraries, here in the United States, very special. There are libraries elsewhere that have important holdings, but you have to ask to have them brought to you. It's a turnoff to discovery--to have to wait for someone to bring materials to you. Would you call for 150 books if you knew that someone had to go get them? But you might open 150 books by yourself on a Saturday afternoon in a library."

Medieval scribes had their ways of deterring book thieves. They would write in their copies of manuscripts an anathema, a curse of excommunication and death. Here's a gentle example, quoted by Marc Drogin in his book Anathema!

Who folds a leafe downe
ye divel toaste browne,
Who makes marke or blotte
ye divel roaste hot,
Who stealeth thisse boke
ye divel shall cooke.

And another, fiercer one, conjuring killer pigs:

Whoever steals this Book of Prayer
May he be ripped apart by swine,
His heart be splintered, this I swear,
And his body dragged along the Rhine.

Today's equivalent of an anathema is the magnetic strip librarians stick in books, usually on the spine under the binding but sometimes in a book's pages. Harvard's anathema of choice is the "Knogo" system. When you check a book out, a library staffer rubs its spine across a box on the desk to demagnetize the strip, and when you bring it back the strip is remagnetized similarly. "Most places did that 20 years ago," says Dowler. "We did it only a few years ago. The strips go into all new books and a lot of the older books retrospectively. We're now starting to end-stamp books with "Harvard" top and bottom. There is new technology coming, little chips that will not only trigger alarms, but will allow us to manage the collection in ways not possible now. We have hired a security officer, which we never had before, believe it or not."

Louis Derby, director of library security and public safety, came to Harvard in 1995. In Widener alone he has 3.2 million volumes to look after. They sit on more than five miles of shelves on 10 floors. Within the confines of Harvard Yard, eight million books need protection. Derby has instituted more patrols of the stacks by people in plainclothes and has beefed up the library's security force. He has instructed the checkers at the doors in the fine art of inspecting people's carry-alls adequately but with finesse so as not to invade privacy or cause undue delays. "If and when the bell at the door goes off," he says, "or the checker notices a book not properly checked out, ordinarily his presumption is to be that innocent error has occurred. He asks the patron to go back to the desk to check out the book.

"No one supposes that the Knogo system is unbeatable," says Derby. "It's possible to remove a strip from a book with tweezers, although you might do a number on the book. Knogo is a deterrent. It puts people on notice that we take theft seriously."

Librarians have posted notices here and there throughout the system headed: "Warning--Criminal Penalties for Theft and Mutilation of Library Materials and Property." The notice refers prospective felons to the Massachusetts laws that came to pass in part because of Eva Jonas's and Sidney Verba's arguments in favor of them. Conceal a book upon your person and remove it from a library and the crime could get you up to five years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Don't use a fictitious name. Don't alter catalog records. Knock off that highlighting with a yellow marker. Willful, malicious, or wanton writing upon, injuring, defacing, tearing, cutting, mutilating, or destroying any library material or property carries a penalty of up to two years' imprisonment and a fine of up to $1,000. The notice concludes: "In addition to these penalties, violations by Harvard employees or students may result in the University's taking serious disciplinary action against offenders, up to and including termination of employment or expulsion."

Dowler is grateful for the protection the laws give librarians. "If we have a problem patron of some kind, somebody we suspect of theft, or we've had an incident of theft, we can now notify a network of people in the University Library that we've had a problem and circulate a photograph and warn them to be on the lookout."

Looks can be deceiving on a university campus, says Verba. "If you're in a Wall Street law office, you can tell who looks like they belong there and who looks like they don't belong there by the cut of the suit. On a university campus, faculty members and students and crooks dress however they want. Mannerisms are such that it's very hard to distinguish between them." To reduce the number of not readily classified visitors, several years ago Widener became off-limits to tour groups--in fact, to anyone who isn't a member of the Harvard community.

Nancy Cline foresees that in the future "people entering the stacks will run their picture ID cards through a reader. They do it now to enter their residence halls. It wouldn't be a terribly obtrusive measure for us to take and would again serve as a reminder to all that this is an important resource they're using."

Dowler is eager for Widener to create "some kind of closed reading room for materials that would not be housed on the open shelves and that would be used by people in a supervised setting. We could protect a lot of the picture material that's so vulnerable these days--if we can implement this plan before thieves have taken it all." "You just have to hit the Newbury Street art galleries," says Derby, "to see what one picture of Napoleon on a horse is getting."

In the aftermath of theft, librarians often take barn-door steps to see that that won't happen again. Thus, after the attempt on the Gutenberg Bible, all windows on the top floor of Widener that overlook the light court were made inoperable and the library resolved that only one volume of the bible at a time would be displayed. Jonas built herself a glass-walled office in the Museum of Comparative Zoology library so that she can see what's going on; she repeatedly drills her staff on correct behavior; and no one can go into the rare-book area alone.

About a month after Torres's wife asked for and couldn't get the Girault de Prangey volume from the Fine Arts Library, the librarian, Jeffrey Horrell, was showing a prospective faculty member through the library. When they came to the part of the stacks containing portfolio volumes, they had a shock. There, on a shelf, was a mat knife and near it a book from which someone had cut plates. Horrell summoned a contractor and within 48 hours had that part of the stacks caged, employing round-the-clock guards until the work was accomplished. Library staff began documenting major losses in that area. The Fine Arts Library has since installed surveillance cameras. "Researchers have to fill out forms and show identification before we will bring them a portfolio volume from the newly caged area of the stacks," says András Riedlmayer. "Perhaps this was inevitable, a sign of the times we live in. But surely it is not a happy one."

Thief Blumberg told his chronicler Basbanes that he couldn't agree with complaining librarians who thought their security systems lax. "I never saw it so much as a matter of poor security," said Blumberg. "To me it was a matter of opportunity. I'm not bragging or anything, but I'm pretty ingenious with resources, if you know what I mean. If one way isn't amenable, I can figure out three or four other ways to get inside."

With this, FBI agent Aiken agreed: "I suppose if these people were willing to dig a 50-foot hole in the ground and encase everything in concrete, he might not have been able to get in, but I wouldn't bet on that, either."

"The truth is," says Dowler, "if someone wants to beat you, it's very hard to stop him. All you can do is be vigilant."

Would another anathema help? Here's one from a monastery in Barcelona. "For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand & rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, & all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever."

Roger Stoddard, premier bookman, gets the last word: "The American open library is a wonder of the world, educating anyone who will walk in the door, enriching any thief who needs some loot."

Christopher Reed is managing editor of this magazine.

FOR FURTHER READING: The "incidents of theft" list maintained by the rare books and manuscripts section of the American Library Association may be found on their website at "http://www.princeton.edu/~ferguson/rbms.html". Library Journal's article about theft from public libraries, "The 'Self-Weeding' Collection," appeared in the October 15, 1996 issue. Art Jahnke wrote about Coffman in "A Rare Love," Boston Magazine, May 1987; Philip Weiss about Blumberg in "The Book Thief," Harper's Magazine, January 1994; Nicholas Basbanes about Blumberg in "The Blumberg Collection," a chapter in A Gentle Madness (New York, 1995); Virginia Kays Creesy about Princeton in "A Library in Trauma," Princeton Alumni Weekly, January 30, 1978. Probably not even Marc Drogin's preternaturally fortified Anathema! (Totowa, New Jersey, 1983) is safe from thieves. Just one more, from the thirteenth century: "May he who steals you then be sent / A blow upon his fundament."

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