Lessons on Catching Bandits of Rare Books


It has quietly become one of the most closely guarded places in the nation's capital. Armed police now patrol the corridors. Every nook and cranny is under surveillance by more than 100 cameras, 24 hours a day. State-of-the-art alarm systems have been installed, and some 3 million electronic devices are now embedded within this treasure trove.

To protect its priceless collection of rare books, films, and historical documents, the Library of Congress is adopting a phalanx of security measures that seems incongruous to a public institution devoted to disseminating knowledge.

But behind the towering stacks, larceny is on the rise. The FBI and the library's inspector general are currently investigating the loss of an estimated $1.8 million worth of important works. The effort to find the perpetrators, and to prevent further plunder, has led to an unusual alliance between federal gumshoes and the close-knit community of antiquarian book dealers. That union may be starting to yield results.

Last week an alert book dealer in Boston preempted a sale of books apparently stolen from the Library of Congress.

An employee of the library approached David L. O'Neal Antiquarian Booksellers in Boston, trying to sell a large literary collection. The dealer was familiar with the books, which were known to have originally belonged to one owner. A quick examination revealed a Library of Congress stamp in one of the books. The store owners conferred with another Boston rare-books dealer, Helen Kelly.

"We called the Library of Congress," Ms. Kelly says. "The library said it owned the collection, and it hadn't been deaccessioned."

The FBI in Boston detained, questioned, and later released an employee of the Rare Books Division at the Library of Congress. The Washington office of the FBI and the US Attorney's Office confirm that the investigation continues. No arrest has been made.

The $1.8 million in losses at the Library of Congress were first discovered in 1994. But it's difficult to know when the items were taken, according to Winston Tabb, associate librarian for library services. He says the library began an inventory in 1978 of its collection, which should be finished later this year, and that the items stolen could have been taken any time in the library's 178-year existence.

532 miles of shelves

On the crest of Capitol Hill, the library has the world's largest treasure trove of books: 532 miles of shelves hold about 16.4 million books and 91.5 million other special collections items. Among the priceless treasures are a Gutenberg Bible; an 1893 film by Thomas Edison titled "Fred Ott's Sneeze;" the papers of Margaret Mead, Sigmund Freud, Thurgood Marshall, and 23 US presidents; a Japanese print from 770; and a scroll sutra from 975.

In addition to the Library of Congress, many universities and museums have valuable collections of rare books. While no one institutional database of stolen items exists, the trafficking in rare prints and maps may be a growing trend, says Edward Ripley-Duggan, security chairman for the Washington-based Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA). The mutilation of library books is sometimes the result of thieves cutting a map or print from a text, because "there is an enormous demand [for such items] both in the United States and overseas," he says.

Rare-book dealers, however, have begun networking to limit the trade in stolen goods. Dealers and collectors, who say the public probably doesn't realize just how small their community is, have developed a system for notifying one another about missing works. First they began using faxes and phones. Now they are using a page on the Internet as well.

In addition to the security measures adopted since 1995, the Library of Congress is looking for a "top-flight security director."

"We know there are some issues with [internal] security, and we are putting together a plan," says Linda Washington, director of integrated support services at the library. "We can't share that plan, because it would indicate where our vulnerabilities are."

The ABAA's Mr. Duggan says inside jobs are relatively common.

In 1995, for example, Washington's Folger Shakespeare Library caught an employee of the library, which houses the largest collection of English printed books from 1475 to 1640 in North America. The employee stole 18 books that were printed in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"We worked with the FBI, and the person was indicted for seven counts of grand theft," says Richard Kuhta, librarian at Folger. He says that the library recovered 15 of the 18 works, but the other three were probably sold at an auction house and taken out of the country.

Mr. Kuhta says it is important to acknowledge these thefts and notify the rare-book community. "Don't turn your back. Work with your colleagues to recover your property."

Loath to admit losses

This advice was not widely practiced until recently. Several experts say libraries are loath to admit they've had important works stolen. The thefts point out that the library's security may not be as good as it should be or that the library may be hiring irreputable workers. They also serve as a signal to other thieves that thefts are possible, and most of all - they deter potential donors.

"That has changed," says Kenneth Gloss, owner of the Brattle Book Shop in Boston. "[Libraries] have realized it's in their best interest in the long run."

Ms. Kelly agrees: "We work very hard to make sure everyone is aware of who has books missing."

Most libraries and museums that house rare collections find themselves facing the paradox of balancing access with preservation.

"These institutions are in a difficult position," says Duggan, owner of Wilsey Rare Books in Olivebridge, N.Y.

"On one hand they exist to provide access to material. On the other hand, the collections are of significant and sometimes extraordinary monetary value. Balancing just the wear and tear from acceptable handling of a rare book against needs of access by a scholar is sometimes a difficult equation."

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