Interloc: Missing/Stolen Book Alert!
Guidelines for the Security of Rare Book, Manuscript, and Other Special Collections
INCIDENTS OF BOOK THEFT
HARVARD MAGAZINE ARTICLE ABOUT BOOK THEFTS
artcile is copyright Harvard Magazine; we have copied it into our website for quick access.
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
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
stamp at the bottom of one of the plates. Examining
the embossed mark
with a magnifying glass, he could just make out the
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
W. Mederos, who is in charge of the University police
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, 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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
He came to trial in February 1996. Womack's
behavior would shake the
binding of any book lover (see "The Slasher").
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
(Vienna, 1748) and Denys de Maubec de
de l'or potable (Nice, 1681).
Cevallos had his alchemy
lab set up in his apartment in
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
"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.
What 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
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
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
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."
(See "Student, Teacher, Scholar" for notes
on three Harvard insiders.)
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
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
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,
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
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--about18,900 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
remove a lock cylinder, replaced the cylinder with
blank he'd brought with him, then took the boosted
cylinder around to locksmiths," Weiss writes.
Blumberg explained, "'It was a Russell and Irwin
This key series was restricted in Boston, and I had
go all the way to Montreal before I could get it.
them I had an apartment building and I wanted to
master it. I talked about rentals and problems.'
he finally found the master, he went back to Harvard
and replaced his blank. 'After that I went wherever
staff went in--the key worked on all the offices
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
stolen. Only about 3,000 could be returned to
libraries." Roger Stoddard went to the warehouse
Omaha to attempt to identify books belonging to
Harvard. He found 670 of them--valued at $75,185,
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
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
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
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.
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
over us," says College librarian Nancy Cline.
"We will be well-mannered, but we need to be tough. What's
is too great."
"The response of universities to being robbed
has changed a good deal," says Sidney Verba, director of
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
lot more aggressive about it," says Lawrence
Dowler. "I think the change came about at Harvard in part
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
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
"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
Professor and recently appointed director of the
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
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
Antiquarian Bookman to alert reputable dealers to
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
In 1931 Joel C. Williams, A.M. '09, Ed.M. '29, a
former instructor at Groton and a former high-school principal,
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
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.
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."
was a copy of A. Edward Newton's The Amenities of
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,"
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
"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
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
the life of the College," says Steiner. "It
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
them to pick one up and read it," says Stoddard.
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
staff can get into the Library of Congress stacks
the stacks of the New York Public Library. We let
people in, and that's an absolutely crucial part
service we provide. I value it as a scholar. But
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
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
damaging. Certainly, there are major thefts. The
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
newly caged area of the stacks," says András
Riedlmayer. "Perhaps this was inevitable, a sign of the times
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.
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
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
with palsy, & all his members blasted. Let him
languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, & let there be no
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
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
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
be sent / A blow upon his fundament."