Book Thieves and Other Library Scoundrels.

Posted by jlubans on September 04, 2013

Caption: Title Page, Philosophical Transactions, 1665.
Travis McDade’s engaging new book, “Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It”. (NY: Oxford University Press, 2013) set me reminiscing about the book crooks I’ve run into during my library career. While “Thieves of Book Row” is about the booming used book trade in Depression-era New York City, the book provides antecedents to current skullduggery and book thievery in libraries. Librarians are today more vigilant and diligent than ever, but the book thief is still at large and doing his mischief. (Hard to believe, but I have never encountered or heard of a female book thief! Bibliokleptomania appears to be a guy-thing.)

Here is my reminiscence of The Felonious Flier:
My first library job was at RPI, the engineering school in up-state NY. One of my many tasks was to secure the thousand or so rare items in RPIs historic collections dating from the early 1800s. Underscoring the importance of this assignment, my boss told me of his recent unhappy experience with a supposedly reputable book dealer. This dealer’s cover/scam was microfilming early journal holdings – he’d pick up the hard copy from the library’s stacks and fly it on his personal plane to a filming company. He’d pay the library a fee and gave it a “free” microfilm copy along with the returned hard copy journal. Presumably, he would then sell the microfilm to other libraries that wanted that journal. (This was a time of mega budgets for science libraries.)
All was well until one weekend when the library director chanced upon the dealer loading the complete set of the rare “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society” (including the first issue from March 6th, 1655) into his car to go to the airport. The “Philosophical Transactions” were not on the to-film list. The director smelled a rat and realized his mistake in letting this dealer into the books stacks unsupervised. (McCade mentions many book thieves ingratiating themselves with library staff and being permitted into locked collections, even after hours. We are indeed all about service!) Because of an open stack library’s “normal” attrition, It is hard to say how many rare items Felonious Flier stole before my boss caught him. I do not recall the punishment, beyond the dealer’s being banned from campus. McCade points out that book thieves rarely get the maximum jail sentence. And, there is the victim’s tendency to avoid embarrassment, so many thieves go free.

Another scoundrel:
The Magazine Mutilator or “My Teacher Said I Could.”
The campus police interrupted my usually quiet lunch hour at the University of Colorado Library. They’d nabbed a student – on the prominent front steps of Norlin Library, no less - tearing pages out of one of the library’s hardbound magazines.
When confronted, he claimed his teacher told him he could. I learned that the teacher, as part of a term paper, required full copies of any cited articles. While I understand what the professor was trying to do – stop plagiarism and make students locate and use original information – I think she could have been clearer about wanting photocopies, NOT ripped off library articles. (But, then, really?)
We re-claimed the torn out pages and glued them back into place. And, as a penance, I had the student write us a letter in which he explained why it was wrong to do what he did. I have to admit, his explanation was like one of those ubiquitous non-apologies from wrong doers, “If I have offended anyone with my actions, I wish to apologize.” No admission of wrongdoing. Nor any acceptance of responsibility for unethical behavior.
I doubt if the student understood (or cared) that ripping out articles deprived other readers. Very likely he had been, since grade school, clipping articles and pictures from magazines as part of teacher-sanctioned assignments. True, those articles were from home subscriptions, but it was not much of a leap –for the literal minded - from ripping up dad’s copy of “Time” or “Life” magazine to doing the same with ones at the library.

In a future blog, I’ll have more recollections of pilfering professors, literary lurkers, petulant patrons and other enemies of books, including librarians.

NOTE: Linked to by American Libraries Direct!

Copyright 2013 John Lubans

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