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In March 1995, a Harvard graduate student, an Indian woman doing work on Islamic architecture, went to the Fine Arts Library at the Fogg Art Museum and asked for a certain book. It was not where it belonged on the shelf, but it had not been checked out. Library staff searched and could not find it. The student asked to be notified if the book turned up.
Last spring András Riedlmayer, bibliographer in Islamic art and architecture, was looking through the catalog of an English bookseller who lives in Granada and specializes in antiquarian works on the art and history of Islamic Spain. Riedlmayer was searching for replacement copies of a number of books that had gone missing from the Fine Arts Library. He was especially eager to find copies of two portfolio volumes of engravings of the Alhambra and other Islamic monuments in Andalusia, based on drawings by Philibert-Joseph Girault de Prangey and published in Paris in the 1830s and 1840s.
"One reason these two books are important for scholars," says Riedlmayer, "is that they record these monuments before they were greatly altered by repeated efforts at restoration and reconstruction. Girault de Prangey's engravings also played a major role in popularizing the architecture of the Alhambra as the embodiment of Moorish Spain, which had already captured the romantic imagination of nineteenth-century writers like Washington Irving and would inspire Moorish-Revival architecture and decorative design throughout Europe and America for more than a century to follow. These were two works I felt the library should have in its research collection, even if they proved to be difficult and expensive to replace."
Riedlmayer found a number of items of possible interest in the Englishman's catalog, but the star offerings were the same two Girault de Prangey volumes he wanted. "These don't come on the market very often," says Riedlmayer, "so I contacted the dealer at once and explained my interest in these volumes. I also said that we needed them to replace items stolen from our collection. He said that one of the volumes had already been sold to another party, but that he would hold the other one for us. He took a quick look at it and told me with some relief that it did not appear to have any library markings, and thus was not likely to be our lost item.
"The next morning I arrived at work to find an anguished letter from the dealer in the office fax machine," says Riedlmayer. "Taking a last, lingering look at the engravings in the early morning light, with the sun still low in the sky, he noticed traces of a partially rubbed-out blind stamp at the bottom of one of the plates. Examining the embossed mark with a magnifying glass, he could just make out the word 'Harvard.' Utterly mortified by his discovery, he wrote to inform us at once. We contacted the Harvard police."
With the help of the bookseller in Granada, detective sergeant Richard W. Mederos, who is in charge of the University police department's criminal investigation division, got in touch with a Spanish antique dealer who had sold the Englishman the two books. The antique dealer turned over a list of 41 books that a self-described "private collector" in Cambridge had offered for sale. The antique dealer had bought five books from the list of 41. The seller's name: José Torres-Carbonnel.
Torres, 34, a Spanish national, was married, Mederos discovered, to a Harvard graduate student he had met in Granada. The student turned out to be the woman studying Islamic architecture who had failed to find the book she needed at the Fine Arts Library. The book she wanted for her studies was one of the Girault de Prangey volumes Torres had sold to the Spanish antique dealer.
Torres was known to the security staff at Widener Library. He had attempted, some months before, to leave the library with a book he had not checked out. He had behaved in a sufficiently fishy manner that his library privileges, which he had obtained because his wife was a student, were suspended for a month. During that time Torres asked to meet with Lawrence Dowler, associate librarian of Harvard College for public services. "Torres seemed remorseful," says Dowler. "He said he was a collector and handed us a book as a gift to the library. I accepted it." Dowler now regrets that he took the book and says ruefully that he won't forgive himself for not jumping hard on Torres at that time.
While Mederos was gathering information about Torres, he got an anonymous tip that Torres was intending to move back to Spain for good. On the morning of the day Torres was to fly home, June 25, 1996, Mederos went to Torres's residence, on Pearl Street in Cambridge, and asked him to come to the Harvard police station to talk about overdue books. Torres went with Mederos to the station house, where Mederos and another officer interviewed him. After 45 minutes Torres confessed to having taken from Harvard the majority of the 41 items he had offered for sale.
Why did he confess? "I'm a Catholic," says Mederos. "I laid the guilt on him."
Mederos arrested Torres and charged him with receiving stolen property. Then he got a search warrant and went to Torres's residence, where he found 1,500 items belonging to Harvard-- books and plates razored from books-- mostly from Widener and the Fine Arts Library. They were in cartons, sealed and ready to be shipped to Torres's parents' home in Granada. Their value was later estimated to be $500,000. Mederos also found evidence that other cartons had been shipped to Spain the day before. He asked Interpol to interdict that shipment, which consisted of 200 items worth $250,000.
In its coverage of the arrest, the Boston Globe reported that one of the books Torres sold to the Spanish antique dealer had in turn been sold to the Englishman in Granada for $2,400, and he had sold it to a London dealer for $4,800. That dealer was Bernard Quaritch Ltd. After the Granada dealer notified Quaritch of the possibility that the book was stolen goods, people at that highly respected firm examined it closely, found partially erased marks of Harvard ownership, asked the library for instructions, and sent the book to Cambridge at once. The Granada dealer did the same with the book in his possession. In September Mederos and Marion Taylor of the preservation staff of the Harvard College Library flew to Spain to recover the rest of Harvard's stolen property.
Torres's wife filed for divorce in June, the month he was apprehended.
After Torres was arrested, the judge confiscated his passport and released him on $15,000 bail. A grand jury heard his case on January 30 and indicted him on 16 counts of larceny, receiving stolen property, and malicious destruction of library materials. He was scheduled to be formally charged in Middlesex Superior Court on February 18. If he pleads innocent to the charges, his case will go to trial, perhaps in nine months to a year.
What was his modus operandi? Did he have an accomplice? How much did his wife know? Has all that he may have stolen been recovered? Will answers to these questions be forthcoming?
"Harvard came out in the Globe story looking remarkably good," says Riedlmayer. "The story focused on the positive-- rare items recovered, culprit apprehended--rather than dwelling on the sensational and sad revelation that someone had managed to walk off with many hundreds of rare and valuable items from Harvard's collections without anyone stopping him, and that he might not have been caught at all were it not for a series of truly bizarre coincidences and a few people who somehow managed to put the pieces together and act on them."
Mederos described the materials in Torres's possession as "old books, engravings, and illustrations of Spanish history from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries," the Globe reported. "I felt sick at heart about the losses," says Riedlmayer. "Many of the engravings are plates cut out of books, the mutilated volumes left behind on the shelves with thin, jagged cut edges in the places where the plates had been. Some of the books had been in Harvard's collection for more than a century and a half, used by countless students and researchers who shared with us librarians the task of caring for these volumes, so they could be used by others in the future.
"In a cynical and secular age," he continues, "the destruction of libraries and books is perhaps one of the last acts still almost universally greeted with a shudder, as sacrilege once was. As librarians, we remain mindful of our role as the keepers of memory. We take it personally when someone attacks or tries to steal items in the collections in our care."
An isolated case of theft from a university library? Hardly that. Says Nancy Cline, Larsen librarian of Harvard College, "We are increasingly aware of the extent of theft and mutilation of books occurring in the nation's libraries." The rare books and manuscripts section of the American Library Association maintains a chronological log of incidents of book theft that begins with thefts reported in 1987. While incomplete, it is voluminous. It could give a librarian or a scholar or a simple reader the blues. A dolorous selection:
October 1996. A man charged with stealing historic letters signed by Lincoln and Jefferson Davis from a University of Bridgeport library receives a probation sentence of three years.
March 1996. A North Little Rock, Arkansas, man is arrested for the theft of manuscripts from university libraries in Kansas and Arkansas. His focus was on outlaws, Civil War guerrillas, presidential letters, Martin Luther King, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot. He is sentenced to 15 years in prison.
December 1995. A former student worker at the UCLA library is found guilty of the theft of more than $1 million in books and other materials from its collections.
December 1995. A Florida man who operates an antique map shop is apprehended removing maps from eighteenth-century books at the Johns Hopkins University library. He has obtained stock from at least 13 other libraries. Prosecutors recommend the minimum sentence because of the perpetrator's cooperation in recovering 140 rare documents valued at $200,000.
June 1995. Dutch police arrest a man in the theft of 22 rare manuscripts from Columbia University.
May 1995. Art-history professor Anthony Melnikas of Ohio State University asks a rare-book dealer to sell two handwritten, illustrated pages that appear to have been cut from a medieval book. They correspond with pages missing from Petrarch's copy of an ancient Roman treatise on farming in the Vatican Library.
In this last case, Roger Stoddard, curator of rare books in the Harvard College Library, got into the act. After Melnikas pleaded guilty in Columbus, Ohio, to various charges of mutilating, stealing, and offering his plunder for sale, and while he was awaiting sentencing, Stoddard wrote the court in his capacity as president of the Bibliographical Society of America to call for a hard sentence. "The only real knowledge we can gain about the Middle Ages comes from the close study of the few manuscripts that have come down to us in the great research libraries. Arguments rage about such things as the spelling of a single word, the peculiarities of handwriting of single scribes, or the substitution or replacement of single leaves or sections. In short, we need all the evidence that we can get--scarce as it is, and we depend on the continuing accessibility of old books and manuscripts, so we can test the accuracy of new interpretations....All depends completely on the maintenance and security of library collections: destroy, mutilate, steal, or hide the books and manuscripts and you frustrate the development of knowledge and the free interchange of scholarship and teaching.
"Melnikas has demonstrated publicly how to bring the system down," wrote Stoddard. "He has stolen from us all. Page by page he has destroyed our 'bible' so that we can read only what he leaves behind. He decides what we may use and what we may not. He teaches the lesson. He shows others how to do it."
The judge sentenced Melnikas to 14 months in prison, two years of supervised release, 250 hours of community service, and a $3,000 fine, and ordered him to pay for the return and restoration of the things he stole.
The torres case is by no means an isolated example of theft from Harvard's libraries, but the decade started promisingly with a capture. In 1991, librarians at Harvard and an embattled army of similar folk nationwide celebrated the trial and incarceration of Stephen Blumberg, the book thief of the century, an overachiever in matters felonious, a bibliomaniac of catholic, discerning, edacious appetites. Of the astonishing Blumberg, who has done his time and is out of jail, more later.
In the '90s Harvard has suffered the attentions not only of Torres, but also of "The Slasher," Stephen Womack, who disemboweled and stole many hundreds of books from Widener Library and libraries at Northeastern University. He came to trial in February 1996. Womack's behavior would shake the binding of any book lover (see page 44).
And consider Daniel Cevallos-Tovar, the alchemist. The FBI arrested Cevallos in January 1995 for stealing more than 280 rare books about alchemy and the occult, most from Widener and a few from the Yale medical library. Cevallos, an attractive, sixtyish man with an amiable personality, had been admitted to the libraries to do research on chemistry and alchemy. Harvard ultimately recovered about 267 books that he had walked off with--thievery that started perhaps as far back as the mid-1970s--among them such rarities as Eirenaeus Philalethes's Des hochgelehrten Philalethae (Vienna, 1748) and Denys de Maubec de Copponay's Traité de l'or potable (Nice, 1681).
Cevallos had his alchemy lab set up in his apartment in Croton-on-Hudson, New York. Mirabile dictu, lightning struck the building and set it on fire. Afterwards, Cevallos moved his stolen and slightly damp alchemy books to a storage warehouse. When he failed to pay storage rent, the owner of the warehouse sold the books at auction. "You could--and many did--buy a carton of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century alchemy books with institutional bookplates for $5 or $10," says Stoddard.
"Buyers began to offer the books for sale, word got to James Wynne, a Rego Park, N.Y., FBI agent in the 'collectibles' department, and he tracked down the buyers and the books. A true hero," says Stoddard. The books were slightly moldy due to the damp. Wynne is allergic to mold and wept bitterly whenever he handled the evidence. The books were fumigated to arrest the mold. Cevallos had disappeared, but the FBI caught up with him eventually when he passed a bad check. Assistant U.S. attorney Bruce Ohr '84, J.D. '87, handled the case. Cevallos was remanded and pleaded guilty to charges of possessing stolen goods. The judge sentenced him to time served--in this case, 136 days--100 hours of public service, and two-years' supervised release.
hat motivates the biblioklept? in a 1982 pamphlet, Rare Books and Manuscript Thefts, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America propounded a typology of thieves, arranging the specimens in five groups: "(1) the kleptomaniac, who cannot keep himself from stealing; (2) the thief who steals for his own personal use; (3) the thief who steals in anger; (4) the casual thief; and (5) the thief who steals for profit. They come in all forms, male and female, young and old. They can be students, professors, librarians, staff members, janitors, book dealers, collectors, doctors, lawyers, Indian chiefs."
The kleptomaniac "takes books and manuscripts from a compulsion to do so, and is generally ashamed of himself....He needs psychiatric assistance." The thief who steals for himself "steals either for the secret pride of possession or to have the material at hand to use. He feels he has the right to have the books." The thief who steals in anger "harbors a real or imagined grievance against the institution or someone in a management position....He will often destroy the materials he has stolen." The casual thief is "one who steals only because the opportunity presents itself....[He] will probably attempt to sell what he has stolen, but will be awkward and inept at doing so. He is the easiest thief to catch at the point of sale." The thief who steals for profit "is responsible for most major book thefts....He may be a staff member or an outsider. He is likely to be armed with spurious credentials. He is best detected by the fact that he acts in a manner inconsistent with serious research."
An informal survey of 74 public libraries nationwide, reported recently in Library Journal, revealed the three books most likely to be stolen from a public library: (1) The Joy of Sex (and sequels); (2) G.E.D. examination books (to prepare oneself for a high-school equivalency test); and (3) The Prophecies of Nostradamus. From the data one librarian extrapolated a composite library thief--"a high school dropout sitting on a mountainside casting spells and waiting for the end of the world, but having really great sex."
"If only it were that simple," say the survey conductors. Instead, "there are as many motivations for theft as there are thieves." If a person is too poor to buy a book he needs, he may steal it. If a book is out of print and hard to obtain, off it may go for convenience's sake. Academic pressure and competition may drive a student to steal. Embarrassment prompts theft; books about impotency or AIDS are stolen by those unwilling to acknowledge interest in the subject. Fans lift icons, like biographies of Elvis. Certain bibliomaniacs hate libraries because beloved books have been defaced with barcodes and stamps of ownership, and they liberate abused volumes in righteous indignation. Ideologues make trouble by removing books critical of their particular religious or political persuasion, or books promulgating doctrines with which they disagree, or books that contain material from which the public should be protected--nudity, for instance. Thieves and their desiderata are many and various. The result? "Libraries everywhere," say the authors of the report, "seem to be increasingly treated as payment-optional bookstores."
Ralph Coffman, Ph.D. '76, put forward one of the more curious motives for book theft in his defense against charges that he stole from Boston College, where he was head of the rare-books collection. As reported by Art Jahnke in Boston Magazine a decade ago, on September 20, 1986, Coffman loaded several cartons of books into his girlfriend's Jeep, drove to Manhattan, delivered the books to Sotheby's to be sold at auction, and departed. The consignment included 11 incunabula (books printed before 1501), 13 early sixteenth-century volumes, and other treasures. The richness of this trove made the Sotheby's book expert straightaway suspicious. One of the incunabula was a 1480 printing of Saint Thomas Aquinas's Tractatus de Ente et Essentia. The Sotheby's man consulted Incunabula in American Libraries, a widely used catalog giving the whereabouts of all 50,000 known incunabula in the country. The book listed only two copies of the Aquinas, one in the Library of Congress, the other at Boston College. The catalog showed that Boston College owned copies of eight of Coffman's incunabula. The Sotheby's sleuth got out his American Library Association directory, looked up Boston College, and learned that its rare-books librarian was his "private collector," Ralph Coffman. And that, essentially, was that. Coffman was discovered to have stolen many books from Boston College in addition to those he took to Sotheby's. So knuckleheaded were his actions with the auction house that one could credit his later statement that he had wanted to be caught. At Harvard and subsequently he had been a student of Puritanism. When he left his wife of 20 years and moved in with another woman, he suffered a spiritual crisis. In his written confession he declared, "I was asking for punishment for my intense feeling of guilt....This guilt was occasioned by the dissolution of my marriage." The judge gave Coffman three years in jail, 1,000 hours of public service, and psychiatric counseling.
In the pantheon of book thieves, no one ranks higher than Stephen Carrie Blumberg. He might wish to be characterized not as a thief, but as the temporary custodian of a number of books on interlibrary loan. He was caught in 1990, when he was 41. After two decades of uncontrolled thieving, he had brought together in one place--his house in Ottumwa, Iowa--about 18,900 books stolen from 327 libraries and museums in 45 states, two Canadian provinces, and the District of Columbia. Americana, mostly. At first estimated in the press at $20 million, the value of the Blumberg collection was restated at the time of sentencing as $5.3 million, a number satisfactory to both prosecution and defense. Blumberg paid little attention to manuscripts but did take from the University of Oregon 20 linear feet of manuscript material relating to the settlement of that state. The FBI hired a 40-foot tractor-trailer to haul Blumberg's 19 tons of booty to Omaha to be inventoried. Identifying the lawful owners of the books proved a nightmare because Blumberg had removed marks of ownership from almost all of them.
Blumberg has been written about at length by Philip Weiss '76 in Harper's Magazine and by Nicholas A. Basbanes in his recent book on book collecting, A Gentle Madness. Both writers interviewed Blumberg--Weiss when Blumberg was in jail in South Dakota, Basbanes at the time of Blumberg's trial--and both strive to put his collecting achievement and his castaway, paranoiac life into humane perspective. He takes some understanding. How does one reconcile an apparently genuine appreciation for a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle bound in ivory calfskin and a slovenliness so pronounced that the wife of an acquaintance felt she had to Lysol the chair he had sat in whenever he stopped by?
He barely finished high school. He never married. He had a long history of mental illness. He was nomadic, driving around the country in an old Cadillac or truck, stealing books, endless books, books he selected with care for his collection. But he was not above common thievery. Often, with henchmen, he would steal antiques and sell them. He came from a well-off family and had a private income of $72,000 annually, but now and then he needed extra money. He never sold his books. He said he would return them one day. He had few friends, and it was one of them who ultimately turned him over to the Justice Department for a $56,000 finder's fee.
The Blumberg case, writes Basbanes, "marked the only time a 'not guilty by reason of insanity' defense has ever been used in an American court to explain the consequences of criminal bibliomania." The jury took only four hours to find him guilty. The judge sentenced him to serve 71 months in prison and pay a $200,000 fine. He was released from prison on December 29, 1995, after serving four and a half years of his sentence, and is said to be living with his parents in Minneapolis.
Blumberg was a cat burglar. "He would avoid alarm systems, or set them off a couple of times and observe the security response," writes Weiss. "He'd squirmed through ventilation ducts and the eight-inch gap between the top of a caged enclosure and the ceiling. At some libraries he had shinnied up the cable of the book dumbwaiter to get from open areas to restricted ones. 'I'm pretty sharp about that,' he said. One time he removed a panel on a service-elevator shaft to get into the shaft and had begun climbing when the elevator started up. He had had to press himself into an inspection bay in the wall to avoid being crushed."
To get into Harvard's libraries, Blumberg spruced up and presented himself as Matthew McGue, a professor at the University of Minnesota whose identification card he had stolen and altered, replacing a photograph of McGue with one of himself. He paid for a 90-day stack pass. One day he entered Widener in the massive overcoat with large interior pockets that he often wore, this time concealing a pair of horseshoe-nail-pullers. "Blumberg used the tool to remove a lock cylinder, replaced the cylinder with a blank he'd brought with him, then took the boosted cylinder around to locksmiths," Weiss writes. As Blumberg explained, "'It was a Russell and Irwin lock. This key series was restricted in Boston, and I had to go all the way to Montreal before I could get it. I'd tell them I had an apartment building and I wanted to master it. I talked about rentals and problems.' When he finally found the master, he went back to Harvard and replaced his blank. 'After that I went wherever the staff went in--the key worked on all the offices and everything.'"
The FBI, Weiss reports, ended up sending about 11,500 of the books it had seized to Blumberg's father, "there being no hard evidence that they had been stolen. Only about 3,000 could be returned to libraries." Roger Stoddard went to the warehouse in Omaha to attempt to identify books belonging to Harvard. He found 670 of them--valued at $75,185, he said at the trial--but he is certain there were more. Here was a Widener pamphlet binding, recognizably Harvard's even though it had been picked clean of library marks. There was a book on economics from the Kress Collection at the Baker Library in the Business School. Here were many that Stoddard could see were from Harvard's angling collection. They had once belonged to Daniel B. Fearing, mayor of Newport, Rhode Island, in the 1890s, who collected books on fishing and gave them characteristic half bindings of green morocco and marbled boards. "I got interested in Fearing as a person," Blumberg claimed, according to Weiss. "I don't suppose Harvard even cared about Fearing. Widener is like a huge warehouse full of books. They were sort of just down in the basement in the corner and nobody even used them. The paper was acidifying." Today, they are off the open stacks and tucked safely away in the Harvard Depository in Southborough, Massachusetts, a secure storage facility.
The blumberg case may have had several useful consequences. Perhaps it encouraged libraries to keep a closer eye on their books. Perhaps it alerted law enforcement agencies to the potential seriousness of book theft. Perhaps it helped change how libraries and universities behave when they are robbed.
"In the old days," says Roger Stoddard, "it was the custom at Harvard and everywhere not to acknowledge that a library had been ripped off, not to cooperate with the police, not to prosecute. Suppressing news of a book theft kept your name out of the newspapers and the courts. No librarian wants to be known as a patsy whose responsibility has been compromised by somebody who helped himself to the patrimony. But I don't think it takes any guts today to meet the press and admit that this library has suffered a loss of a thousand books, say, and over here we have Mr. Adams who has been caught with 700 of them, and here we have his book-dealer friend with 300 of them, and we're going to prosecute them. We've changed to a healthy, realistic attitude toward robbery."
Daniel Steiner, the University's general counsel from 1970 to 1992, agrees that the culture has changed, that libraries and universities are more ready than they once were to go after thieves in the courts. He points out that in the case of relatively minor crime, if the offender is a student or member of the faculty or staff, very often the penalty he or she would face in the judicial system is less severe than the administrative penalty Harvard is prepared to hand out. Thus, a student caught shoplifting might be kicked out of Harvard for a time, but little would happen to him in a court. "It's a big deal for Harvard," says Steiner, "but not for the police. They spend their days dealing with murder, rape, wife-beating, and child abuse."
"I feel very deeply that we must be mindful not to set precedents that will lead people to think they can walk all over us," says College librarian Nancy Cline. "We will be well-mannered, but we need to be tough. What's at risk is too great."
"The response of universities to being robbed has changed a good deal," says Sidney Verba, director of the Harvard University Library and Pforzheimer University Professor. "There still is this dilemma--I suppose in connection with any type of crime--of the possibility of contagion: if you tell somebody what another person did, he'll think, 'That was a good idea, why don't I do it as well?' Libraries are always nervous about revealing their vulnerability, but it is important that you do make clear that theft is a really serious crime."
"The seriousness of library theft has reached a point where people agree we've got to start publicizing it and be a lot more aggressive about it," says Lawrence Dowler. "I think the change came about at Harvard in part because of the enormous amount of time spent on the Womack case. Steiner really took it seriously. The University was very supportive through all of that, and we had a number of meetings where we talked about strategy. There was a recognition that it was costing big bucks, a couple of hundred thousand dollars, to try to apprehend this son of a bitch. That doesn't count the time of major people in the University sitting around trying to figure out what in the hell was going on."
Stoddard believes that the change came even earlier, in the early 1980s, when Eva Jonas hit the roof at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Says Stoddard, "She radicalized us all."
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."
Soon she was able to compile a list of 120 missing rare books. When she realized that the library newly in her charge had been, and perhaps was still being, stripped of its treasures, Jonas went to the director of the museum, Alfred Crompton, to raise the alarm. She thought he took the matter too calmly.
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."
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."
"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."
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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