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"We have met the enemy and he is us." Porkypine's remark in Impollutable Pogo comes into Sidney Verba's mind as he talks about book theft. Verba is director of the Harvard University Library and Pforzheimer University Professor. "Certainly there is a kind of irresponsible borrowing by students and faculty that shades over into theft," says Verba. "Students are not here to steal our books, and my colleagues on the faculty are not here for that purpose, but every once in a while you borrow a book and just forget to return it. The library has a floating vulnerability. It's particularly a problem at a university like Harvard, in that we correctly are a magnet for people from other universities and from around the world who come here for relatively brief periods of time and have less commitment to the institution than a student who has been here for four years or a faculty member who works here. Perhaps a visitor leaves, inadvertently taking books with him. All the humanists on the staff at Widener have a madness for books. We all do. We love them. We love to hold them, to touch them. There are always, in any distribution of people of that sort, a few who go beyond that which is legitimate."
At least three members of the Harvard family went beyond the legitimate in the 1970s and 1980s. Writing about these "underhanded bookmen" in Bulletin du Bibliophile, 1 (1992), Roger Stoddard, curator of rare books in the Harvard College Library, gave them pseudonyms on the advice of counsel, pseudonyms used here as well.
Note that all three miscreants were in the history department. Says McLean professor of ancient and modern history emeritus Franklin Ford, Peter Teacher's thesis adviser, "Perhaps that reflects the importance of the book to historians."
"William C. Student, it is said, was one of the most promising students to enter the Harvard Graduate School in History," writes Stoddard. "From 1971 until 1977 he dazzled his teachers and advisers, increasing his store of knowledge--but that wasn't all that he increased." In the spring of '77 he was discovered to have in his office between 3,000 and 5,000 books from Harvard, Boston, and various English libraries. "Some of the more valuable he took from the Treasure Room at the Law School," says Bernard Bailyn, Adams University Professor emeritus, Student's thesis adviser. The books, Stoddard reports, were in cartons "which were labeled to accompany him to Claremont Men's College, where he had been offered an assistant professorship. He had selected most liberally, it turned out, books and pamphlets bearing on his special topic, English Constitutional History in the eighteenth century." "Some of the most valuable ones were on the seventeenth century," says Bailyn, "so the range was really considerable."
"The 'Student' Syndrome, the removal of a whole subject collection from public use, expunges that topic from the list of local possibilities available for study and research," Stoddard observes. "Book by book, the very next student of Student's subject together with his or her library friends would find that the cupboard was bare, and they would initiate long and usually unsuccessful search for thief and books."
"He was a little guy, twitchy, but with an engaging intensity," says Bailyn. "He was passionate, very learned, and a very successful teacher. He loved the texts in his field. But he was overly ambitious. He picked a tough topic for his thesis, and it overwhelmed him. Against my advice, he kept enlarging the scale of the topic, and as the project grew, he required more books. When he was caught, he had written pieces of his dissertation but had not finished it, in part because of the scope of the project. He wanted his texts close at hand, which is vaguely legitimate. Perhaps he felt that if he physically possessed a book, he possessed it intellectually."
Bailyn recalls that Student had stamps made so that he could give books from Widener "an initial stamp-out date to get them past the door watchers and so get them out of the library." A fellow graduate student became suspicious of the number of books Student had in his office in Vanserg, and he was caught.
The Crimson broke the story on May 27, reporting that Daniel Steiner, Harvard's general counsel, "said he expects the University to decide next week...whether to legally prosecute the student or rely on internal discipline measures." His case "proved divisive within the University," writes Stoddard. "Librarians pressed for prosecution." An administrative board of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, chaired by Peter McKinney, then acting dean of the school, considered Student's case at a meeting on June 14 and decided to recommend to the faculty that he be dismissed for a year. The University took no legal action against Student during the summer, or thereafter. In the fall, the faculty rejected the recommendation of the administrative board, says Bailyn, feeling it was much too lenient, and debated whether to expel Student. If expelled, he could never return as a student. If dismissed, he could apply for readmission.
"Oscar Handlin had to make an impassioned plea at a faculty meeting to make it clear that this was a real violation of the University," Verba recalls. "People were getting up and talking about the passion for books, which makes it sound like theft is a gentle madness, when it's really a criminal madness." Says Handlin, "I thought we should slam the book at him, but faculty members are very soft-hearted about this sort of thing." "He had ileitis," says Bailyn, "and a physician testified to the administrative board that there may have been extenuating circumstances because of the drugs he was taking." Says McKinney, "I felt he should not be banished from Harvard forever. Others felt strongly that he should never set foot in the place again."
"The matter was recommitted to the committee," says Bailyn, "which then recommended a three-year dismissal with stringent conditions for readmission." And so it was. Student left town and never reapplied. Bailyn knows little of his activities thereafter but thinks he may have written speeches for some senator in the early '80s.
Alan Heimert, Cabot professor of American Literature and former Master of Eliot House, remembers Peter Teacher, Ph.D. '78, a nonresident tutor at the House, as a "charming guy from Columbus, Ohio, from a family with considerable money. He played House basketball. He personally rented movies to put on an intelligent series for the House. He was a honcho in John Glenn's campaign for the Senate. He was writing a book comparing the Russian, French, and Romanian revolutions. Then, in the mid '80s, he broke up with his girlfriend. After that he went crackers. She continued to live in his apartment near Porter Square, and he lived in the nonresident tutors' office. Six months later he disappeared."
In 1991 Teacher's former landlord decided to get rid of belongings his tenant had abandoned some five years before in a basement storeroom of the apartment house. There as well, in cartons, were belongings of Widener Library, the Curry College library in Milton, Massachusetts, and the Boston Public Library. Stoddard and colleagues "took out some one hundred and thirty cartons, leaving an even larger number behind for Curry." Stoddard says that, along with the books, he found Teacher's teaching notes. "He abandoned not only books, but the academic life," Stoddard believes.
"Years before, Widener librarians knew that they had...on their hands the so-called 'French Thief,'" writes Stoddard. "That one would clean the shelves of standard text editions of French authors, and new accessions would disappear along with out-of-print and antiquarian sets." Teacher's doctoral dissertation was about a great ministerial family of France, the Colberts, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
"The effect of Teacher's work is incalculable," writes Stoddard. "Curry was the greater loser. When you remove cartons of Pléiade editions, Oxford and Cambridge press editions, and whole series of monographs on authors from a college library, the whole teaching program is in jeopardy. Mr. Teacher, last heard from in Colorado, has disappeared, leaving only 'his' 'library' behind to remind us of a miseducated youth."
The third of the trio is Jeffrey M. Scholar. he was graduated from the College summa in 1966, received the master's degree in '69, was enrolled in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for six of the nine years from '69 to '78, was a junior fellow, and received the J.D. degree from Harvard Law School in '78. He has three siblings with Harvard degrees. Ten years after leaving law school, he came a cropper.
"In the summer of 1988 Scholar offered for sale to the antiquarian booksellers Ximenes in New York City and David L. O'Neal in Boston several rare printed books from which most of the Widener Library markings had been removed," writes Stoddard. "One thing led to another until Scholar disgorged some 255 printed books and dozens of maps that had been removed from books. The books provened from Dartmouth and from several Harvard libraries, including Widener, Law, and Divinity....Scholar pleaded guilty to the felony charge of receiving stolen property, and he was sentenced to three years probation on condition that he continue his psychiatric treatment. He has been barred from the libraries of the University." He is now professor of law and literature at a law school.
"I remember a case," says Verba with discretion, "where books were stolen by someone with a strong familial connection to Harvard. Several people said to me, isn't it a shame that the person comes from such a fine family? No, I said, it's a shame that the person has stolen books from us. That's the shame."
|"The Slasher"||Student, Teacher, Scholar||Caging the Man-eaters|
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