Closing the books: Libraries curtail access to fight theft

January 18, 1993|By Dallas Morning News

They steal everything from bad poetry to books originally owned by Thomas Jefferson.

They take Dickens, Thoreau and Audubon, Stephen King and Danielle Steele, cookbooks, car-repair manuals, copies of the Koran. They've stolen 40 percent of the collection on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

For years -- seemingly forever -- thieves have been running loose in the Library of Congress. Their work has been easy and profitable, and they've almost never been caught.

Hundreds of thousands of books have been stolen, along with art folios, maps, letters, diaries. Countless volumes have been gutted, too, by thieves armed with razor blades. With some books, especially those containing old photographs, color plates or engravings, the only thing left on the shelf is the binding.

The losses and mutilations are so dramatic that library officials can't even begin to estimate their extent or cost. The Librarian of Congress, James Billington, has called the situation "cultural looting" and "a national tragedy."

Many of the rare books that are stolen are eventually sold at auction, says Katharine Leab, who operates Bookline Alert, the country's lone data base for missing and stolen books. "The prints (that are sliced out of books) end up on the interior decorators' market," she said. "Every time a horrible new hotel goes up, they've got to put something on those walls."

No part of the library's vast collection -- which will reach 100 million items next month -- has been immune. With limited security and 530 miles of stacks for thieves to hide in, the pickings have been easy.

"People see this as a victimless crime, but if you lose enough of it, you've lost the history of your culture," Ms. Leab said.

The Library of Congress is hardly the only collection to be victimized by thieves and vandals. Public and private libraries, universities, courthouses and state and municipal archives all over the country also are being plundered.

Particularly serious, Ms. Leab said, is the theft of Civil War material: books, official documents, original letters, battle maps. "The disappearance of this stuff ought to be alarming people. There are many original documents missing. There are whole rings of people stealing Civil War material, and they've been doing it for years."

To combat the thefts and vandalism in its collection, the Library of Congress has virtually closed its stacks to the public. It has even restricted the access of many of its own staffers.

The rarest volumes -- known in the art theft world as "cash books" -- are being electronically tagged. "We're starting to bar-code things, but it's a huge undertaking," said Craig D'Ooge, a Library of Congress spokesman. "We get 30,000 new items every day."

Surveillance cameras and electronic gates also have been installed, and more guards are on duty.

"We have had to clamp down on the access," said D'Ooge. "We've basically buttoned the place up."

That hasn't pleased a number of the researchers and scholars who have always had free range in the stacks.

"If this means long-term security for their collections, I guess I'm willing to pay the price, but I must say I'm very frustrated," said David Shayt, a frequent user of the library in his job as collections manager for the Division of Community Life at the American Museum of National History.

For example, Mr. Shayt is doing research on the glass houses that were once used to bleach ivory for piano keys. He knows the Library of Congress has hundreds of books on greenhouses, and within this collection are hiding the books he needs. The problem is, he has to look through all of them to find exactly the ones he needs.

"I could do that in less than an hour," he said. "But being denied access means I now have to submit call slips -- based on random guesses -- and wait for hours for someone to bring the books to me.

"It's like walking for hours through a forest, blindfolded, looking for a particular tree, and hoping you'll bump into the right one."

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