WASHINGTON — VANDALS, thieves, and freelance looters are stealing books and art treasures from the Library of Congress at such an unprecedented rate that the library has had to make radical changes in its security and accessibility policies.
The library is installing high-tech electronic security devices and requiring photo IDs or passports, even to see a book brought by a staff member to a user in the reading room. And the library is also beefing up the book police and putting devices in books to warn of attempted thefts.
The targets range from rare floral prints to Stephen King novels and car manuals.
"Floral prints are a particular target because those kinds of titles turn up [missing] routinely," says Diane Kresh, acting director of public service collections management I. "People are razoring prints out at random, for the print markets, [they are] coming to look for those. It's not a ring of thieves working together. We have fine-arts specialists on the staff who are aware of the market, come across something, find the copy has been removed in total, and only the bindings are there. The color print s have been robbed, razored out. It not only robs us of the physical content itself, but of examples of printing techniques."
She says in one case an art dealer was brought something, became suspicious of how this person got custody of something rare, and called the library. The library eventually got the item back.
Some staff members are sorry Abbie Hoffmann ever wrote "Steal This Book" years ago, and rip-off artists remembered. Ms. Kresh says many of the books are part of mainstream culture, not the rare first editions of classics you might think. "I'm not so sure I know why. Evidence suggests they're taking books on the occult, astrology, car-repair manuals, computer manuals, manuals for Lotus and Word Perfect, and cookbooks. A lot of people are interested in recipes.
"We had a researcher here on the [editions of] 'The Joy of Cooking,' working on trends in American cuisine. But there weren't enough of the many editions of Irma Rombauer's classic cookbook left on the library's shelves." Kresh says some people just smuggle out cookbooks like "One Thousand Pasta Recipes."
Books on contemporary culture, fiction, and books on or by prominent African-American authors are other popular subjects for thefts. Volumes by Danielle Steel, Stephen King, and Toni Morrison are among the missing, says Kresh.
Other libraries share some of the same vandalism problems. Nancy Bush, a library spokesperson, says that 50,000 rare prints at Princeton University, among them works by Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others, have disappeared from the university's library. "A lot of it is selfishness; they really want to take them home with them. It's really a breakdown of morality," Ms. Bush says. And Kresh mentions that a case of volumes was taken from the rare-book collection at the University of Pennsylvania.
The steal-this-book syndrome, Kresh says, suggests a general trend in society that's been building for the last decade or two.
"People are interested in instant gratification; you want it, you get it, the idea that I pay their salary, I'll just rip it out [of the book]," she says. "In general, much of society has a lack of respect of authority, property rules, and basic values today.
"Who would think that this kind of thing would happen to a venerable institution like the Library of Congress that prides itself on being an open library, and accessible, and at the core of democratic principles, and ... general improvement and increase of knowledge? "