Safeguarding Library Treasures From Theft

Arraignment today of Library of Congress historian illustrates difficulty of preventing rare, valuable works from being purloined.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Among rare-book collectors, James Gilreath's scheduled arraignment today in a federal courtroom on 22 counts of theft of government property is a sad epilogue to an otherwise respected career as a Library of Congress historian.

But to security experts, this modern-day version of the purloined letter is a sign of how tough their job has become. The kinds of irreplaceable books that Mr. Gilreath is accused of taking feed an expanding market created by dishonest collectors. Theft is draining libraries across the country of rare books, manuscripts, and maps.

"The problem of theft from libraries and collections is more pervasive than one might hear about," says Everett Wilkie Jr., a rare-books security consultant in Delaware.

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Gilreath will enter a plea before the court today on charges he attempted to sell $30,000 worth of stolen books from the Library of Congress to a private rare-book collector in Boston. The collection included one of only five remaining first-edition copies of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" printed in French. The case, first made public by the Monitor in January, has led libraries to reexamine their security and restrict access in some cases to their most precious works. The Library of Congress earlier this year announced it is spending an additional $12 million on security for its collection.

Patrolling 532 miles of bookshelves

But in large institutions, protecting every book is a monumental task. The Library of Congress estimates that almost $2 million worth of printed material has been taken from its 532 miles of bookshelves.

One Web site, that of Princeton University, has 33 single-spaced pages of notices about vandalism and items stolen from collections around the country.

The Gilreath case is unusual. According to security experts, thefts are most often pulled off by outsiders. "You don't hear about insider theft too much. In most cases it's people who cleverly steal stuff from under your nose," says Wilkie.

In addition to beefed up security, libraries in recent years have become more open about reporting theft, instead of keeping losses secret. Making thefts public, officials once believed, chilled the philanthropic spirit of potential donors who were thinking of bequeathing their collections. It was also thought to highlight a collection's vulnerability.

But in the electronic age, reporting theft has proved effective.

One notorious thief, Gilbert Bland Jr., was caught slicing rare maps out of an old book in a university reading room. The curator there alerted others by posting a notice on Ex-Libras, an electronic bulletin board for book collectors. Mr. Bland was later arrested and convicted in 1995 for stealing maps from books at Duke University in Durham, N.C and three other schools. Maps and illustrations cut from old books are the fastest-growing part of the black market for antiquities.

Irreplaceable links to the past

"I think most people can understand pictures but not so much the value of a book," says Judge Morris Arnold of the US Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, whose collection includes a 1514 copy of Magna Carta. (Judge Arnold stresses he has no knowledge of, and makes no judgment on, the Gilreath case.)

Lost in the theft of these books are irreplaceable links to history and culture, he says. "There is something exotic, for instance, about a book that was published in the 15th century in a language ... no longer even used today," says Arnold. "It cannot be replaced."

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