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Magazines > Information Today > November 2013

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Information Today
Vol. 30 No. 10 — November 2013
Getting Away With History
by Donovan Griffin

A thief who steals rare books and manuscripts is a specter haunting our libraries. And unlike graduate students, researchers, and others who hope to gain from the scholarship libraries make available, the thief aims to profit from the money that irreplaceable pieces of cultural history can bring on the market.

Those who steal rare material from libraries commit a different kind of larceny than their bank-robbing counterparts: The items they take have both monetary and cultural value. This sentiment was noted by Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who presided over the case of book thief Daniel Spiegelman, when he said Spiegelman had “deprived a generation of scholars and students of the irreplaceable raw materials by which they seek to discern the lessons of the past.”

But E. Forbes Smiley III is the name that lingers in the memory of many keepers of rare manuscripts, books, and maps. Smiley was an art dealer who helped build up major collections of maps, two of which were eventually donated to The New York Public Library and the Boston Public Library. He was caught pilfering maps worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from a library at Yale University after an X-ACTO knife he used to cut maps from rare books was found on the floor. When questioned, he admitted to stealing a total of 97 rare maps valued in excess of $3 million. He stole the maps from some of the most famous libraries around the country, as well as one in London.

Inside Job

Smiley’s example shows how thefts typically occur in the rare materials section of libraries. More often than not, an insider with intimate knowledge of the value of various pieces, rather than a career criminal, takes items from the collection. Knowledge of the industry is a key factor for these thieves: They know what to do with the loot. These stolen items can’t easily be sold to a fence; the specialized artifacts require knowledge about proper pricing and possible buyers.

“As a general rule, when book thieves are caught, they get caught trying to sell the thing, they get caught because someone on eBay recognizes that that [item] shouldn’t be up for sale,” says Travis McDade, curator of law rare books and associate professor of library science at the University of Illinois’ College of Law and author of two books on historical book theft. “When map thieves get caught, often they get caught in the act. So if you think about Forbes Smiley, that guy got caught because he dropped razor blades on the floor. …”

Institutional theft on a large scale happened as recently as 2012 at the Girolamini Library in Naples. Thousands of books were found to be missing, sold, or squirreled away by the politically appointed former library director Marino Massimo De Caro over the course of almost a year. Many were sold without the seller employing even the most rudimentary of book repurposing tricks—removing a library’s stamp.


While institutions that painstakingly assemble rare books can purchase insurance to protect their collections, it’s unlikely that they can just buy another version of a stolen document. Even if similar items exist, they’re difficult to procure, and if the thief is caught, there’s no guarantee investigators will find the original item. Although Smiley was able to reduce his sentence by pointing out where the majority of his maps had ended up, other victims of rare material theft often aren’t so lucky.

“In the early ’70s we had slightly more than a hundred photographs of early baseball from the print department stolen, and those continue to come back to us on a fairly regular basis,” says Susan Glover, keeper of special collections for the Boston Public Library (BPL). (BPL is one of the six repositories Smiley hit on his map-stealing spree.) She noted that another of the baseball photographs had recently been spotted on the market, bought by a collector, and repatriated at the BPL after having been away from the museum for decades.

Unless thieves are caught and cooperate with authorities to retrieve items they’ve sold, slow or infrequent reacquisitions are the norm. Anders Burius, formerly the head of the Royal Library of Sweden’s manuscript department, was found to have stolen 56 books from his workplace during his tenure from 1995 to 2004. The subsequent investigation found more stolen rare books in his home, unrelated to the Royal Library. Burius committed suicide after confessing to his crimes, which left the status of the stolen items up in the air for investigators. So far, only three of the 56 rare volumes have been returned to the Royal Library in the 9 years since Burius’ death. Each returned volume is valued at $100,000 or more.

Beefing Up Security and Preventing Theft

The Association of College and Research Libraries division of the American Library Association offers guidelines on securing special collections and preventing theft (

  • Hire a library security officer (LSO): Appointed by the library’s director, the LSO should maintain and deploy the security program, including surveying the collections, reviewing the library’s physical layout, and training new staff members.
  • Develop a security policy: In conjunction with legal authorities, administrators, and staff, the LSO should create a written security policy for collections that include rare materials. The LSO may choose to work with a security consultant.
  • Assess the facility: Monitor all entrances to the special collections rooms, and provide work areas for the public that are separate from staff areas. Consider installing keyways (unique keys and locks provided by a single manufacturer), and distribute vault combinations to as few staff members as possible.
  • Properly train the staff: The LSO should ensure all staff members, including volunteers and students, are trained in security measures. This includes making staff aware of their responsibilities regarding legal and procedural issues as well as their own rights should a theft occur.
  • Register all visitors to the special collections:
    All researchers who visit the special collections should provide photo IDs. They should complete a registration form that asks for their names, addresses, and institutional affiliations as well as which collections they will be accessing. Libraries should retain these records permanently.

- Deborah Poulson

The Quiet Game

In the past, libraries would keep thefts from their collection under wraps, says McDade. Burgled institutions kept quiet because there wasn’t much benefit to reporting that such rare pieces had been stolen. Staffers often tried to retrieve purloined items on their own. Revealing that your institution was the victim of theft didn’t help much to catch the thieves, and it may have hurt the institution’s reputation. Potential donors might reconsider leaving a prized collection to a building they know was fleeced of a few of its treasures.

But if you’re looking for a library older than a couple decades with a spotless record, you’re likely to be disappointed. “Every major library in the United States has been victimized several times,” says McDade. He says there shouldn’t be any shame in admitting one’s institution has been burgled, and that it’s usually the mark of having a great collection. “I think that it is helpful now to say when you’ve been stolen from,” he says.

The chain of command for reporting stolen items varies at the beginning, depending on the type of collection and the institution housing it, but it becomes more uniform as the process moves along. The person overseeing a university collection is likely to report directly to a university council about a theft, whereas in a public library, he or she would usually involve the library director before seeing the board of trustees.

Local law enforcement is usually the next step; ideally, they will work in tandem with the library staffer who reported the crime in the first place. If the object in question fulfills certain criteria (it’s uniquely identifiable, has historical significance, and is worth more than $2,000), then it can be submitted to the FBI’s National Stolen Art File, a computerized index used to assist investigators in case the item turns up again.

The FBI has an Art Crime Team based in Chicago that investigates stolen items, including Vincent Van Gogh paintings, an original Stradivarius violin, and, of course, rare books, maps, and manuscripts. According to Glover, the FBI worked closely with BPL to return the maps stolen by Smiley, as well as assisting with the return of the early baseball photographs.

Since the web has truly become worldwide, it behooves institutions to announce their missing materials. Certain areas of the marketplace are only so big, and any collector worth his salt is scouring the internet anyway. “So if you lose a medieval manuscript, there are a limited amount of legitimate dealers who are ever going to be in the market to buy and sell a medieval manuscript. Let them know that you’re missing something so they can keep an eye out for it. Sooner or later they’ll probably get wind of it,” says McDade.

Additionally, there are online resources to report thefts. The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America runs a stolen book database on its website. The Art Loss Register at is a private service surrounding the field of art loss, with resources for owners to report stolen items to the list, for dealers to check offered items for possible dubious origins, and for law enforcement to see if items under investigation have subsequently popped up. Besides the National Stolen Art File, the FBI Art Crime Team also keeps track of museums and libraries offering rewards for returned items along with alerts that certain items have been stolen.

The Librarian Blues

Of course, focusing on the possibility of theft from rare collections ignores the basic fact of libraries: They’re made for the public to use them. So how do you toe the line between helpful purveyor of information and vigilant gatekeeper of the valuable?

It takes some forethought and a practiced awareness on both sides of the librarian-researcher interaction. “We want to make people aware that they are using special materials under special circumstances, but we want them to feel comfortable and confident when they go into the reading room,” says Glover.

Restricting access with consistent safeguarding routines is a practical method libraries have developed over the years. One such strategy is having someone in the reading room who is monitoring the collection. Checking each rare volume on the way in and out of the reading room is par for the course, but loose manuscripts, which are often collected in folders, should be inspected as well.

Those who hire for libraries with valuable collections also need to be aware of the unique access that their new employees would hold. McDade suggests criminal background checks, along with reviewing things that, in combination with other suspicious behaviors, might set off some red flags, such as recent bankruptcy filings. Hiring for the rare manuscripts section of a library shouldn’t be as thorough as hiring for the CIA, he says, but it’s worth checking into the people you hire.

But sometimes there is simply no indication someone might steal from the library. “In many ways, some of these guys aren’t really thieves until they get there and work at this job for a good long time, like Daniel Lorello, who worked for the … New York State Archives in Albany,” says McDade. “That guy had been there for decades, and the evidence suggests that it wasn’t until being there for fifteen years or so, maybe twenty years, that he started stealing. There’s no rhyme or reason to it; it’s not like people get hired on to a library and intentionally start stealing right away.”

Proving the Rule

The best security practices in the world won’t help if you don’t follow them exactly. “I think that once you start making exceptions, you are marching down a very slippery slope,” says Glover.

Many book thieves have cajoled their way into exceptions from security procedures over the years. Some brought treats, flattered librarians about their collections, shared industry knowledge, and (in Smiley’s case) helped create collections themselves. These actions accumulated goodwill, and familiarity convinced the people in charge of collections not to worry while the thieves handled the rare materials.

There will always be tension for rare collections librarians because people still need to handle the physical materials for research purposes. Until digital alternatives are available everywhere, a librarian’s often enthusiastic proclivity for information sharing will have to be tempered with humdrum security concerns. “As a practical matter I think we make these things part of our routine,” says McDade. “[B]ut I say that any time that you’re going to allow people to use these materials you’re going to put them at risk. That’s just the nature of it.”

Donovan Griffin is the assistant editor of Information Today. Send your comments about this article to
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