24 Sept 2021

Stop, Thief! Preventing theft in Library Special Collections

Libfocus is very happy to post the third placed entry in this years CONUL Library Assistants Award. Congratulations Gretchen Allen, Maynooth University Library.

Copies of Newton’s Principia have been stolen from the Cambridge University Library and from the Carnegie Library (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)


Book theft is a taboo topic amongst high profile libraries, even though almost every library has experienced a major theft. The reluctance to discuss the topic in library circles has led to a culture of silence surrounding collection security and theft prevention. However, ignoring this type of crime does not make it less common, and libraries can benefit from looking at the patterns of large-scale book theft and adjust their approaches accordingly. This post features a short summary of the different motivations and methods employed by prolific book thieves and gives some suggestions on how libraries can stay vigilant and secure. 

Pages from illuminated manuscripts are often cut or torn out and sold individually, like this single leaf from a 14th C manuscript that was recently repatriated to Italy (Photo: US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) 

Book Theft

Rare books have a cultural mystique that informs how and why they’re stolen. The book collection signifies the taste and status of the collector, even if they haven't actually read them. A book’s rarified aura as a cultural “collectible” has a profound effect on a certain type of thief. For these thieves, rare books trigger a compulsive hoarding instinct for expensive volumes. Rather than being primarily motivated by profit, their aim is to accumulate more books. These thieves are often the most prolific and unrepentant--often they’ll go straight back to stealing books the minute they’re let out of jail. 

In addition to thieves who pursue the book itself as a valuable item, more profit-driven thieves are often interested in the component parts that make up a valuable book. These thieves are more likely to remove and sell the valuable plates, maps, illuminations, or even covering boards, because these smaller components are easier to steal than the whole book. Selling book parts individually can also help circumvent questions of provenance, making them easier to sell off quickly. 

These are by no means the only types of book thieves, but these tend to be two strategies and motivations seen the most in thefts from library special collections. 

Two of Darwin’s notebooks, thought to be misplaced for 20 years, were confirmed to have been stolen from Cambridge University Library (Photo: University of Cambridge) 

What makes libraries vulnerable 

Libraries are particularly vulnerable, as they are fairly relaxed environments in terms of security, even in special collection spaces. This has recently started to change, but even now reading rooms have weaknesses inherent to the nature of a working library. For example, in a museum people are encouraged to stand away from the art, forbidden to touch it, and expected to move through fairly quickly. In libraries, readers are given hours of time to handle and examine books. This makes it easy to just put a book under your jacket and leave. Alternatively, readers can easily bring in small blades to remove pages. If readers have access to stacks, a space from a missing book is easily camouflaged. 

Special Collections are also vulnerable to thefts by employees. Even where security for readers is tight, Special Collections staff are often given open access to collections. Underpaid library staff may be susceptible to temptation to sell priceless collection items. Like the book-hoarding thieves, some inside thieves are taken in by the aura surrounding the collections; there can be the added motivation of “nobody else knows this collection like I do” or “I’ve been taking care of this collection for decades, it’s basically mine”. Large collections are particularly susceptible to items “disappearing”, often due to just being misfiled or misplaced, so theft usually wouldn’t be suspected. In collections with thousands of items, thieves have the same amount of plausible deniability as someone who stole a twig from a forest. 

Because of this, both inside and outside thieves will often steal repeatedly over a long span of time, racking up dozens or hundreds of undetected thefts over years or even decades. 

Book thieves and YOU 

Every institution is different, and different priorities will help determine appropriate security actions. Some suggestions are: 

 Keep thorough records of all appointments

 Provide lockers to store coats and bags
                    Implement CCTV in reading rooms

 Monitor return readers, as most book thieves will take books repeatedly

 Check books upon return to make sure no plates or pages have been

 Conduct regular inventory checks and identify missing items

 Keep your staff’s pay and morale high

 Keep staff well-informed of previous thefts, security weaknesses, and
                    blacklisted guests

 Refrain from transporting items through unsecured areas

 Keep keys to collection storage secured on-premises

 In-person invigilation is key

 Talk to other libraries near you about their experiences

 In case of theft, press charges


The fact that book theft is only ever discussed when a thief has already struck has contributed to ignorance in libraries around techniques used to identify, foil, catch, and prosecute book thieves. If libraries and scholars create an open dialogue regarding book thefts, it could lead to an aware and informed library and conservation profession, and hopefully help prevent more crimes in the future.  


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