Why People Steal Rare Books

Interesting analysis:

“Book theft is very hard to quantify because very often pages are cut and it’s not noticed for years,” says Rapley. “Often we come across pages from books [in hauls of recovered property] and we work back from there.” The Museum Security Network, a Dutch-based, not-for-profit organisation devoted to co-ordinating efforts to combat this type of theft, estimates that only 2 to 5 per cent of stolen books are recovered, compared with about half of stolen paintings.

“Books are extremely difficult to identify,” Rapley continues. “That means they can be sold commercially at near to market value rather than black-market value.” Thieves know that single pages cut from books to be sold as prints are easier to steal and even harder to trace, so they are often even more desirable than books themselves.

Most thieves simply cut out pages with razor blades and then hide them about their person. High bookshelves, quiet stacks or storage areas, or any lavatories located within reading rooms, are obvious places for such nefarious activities.

Regular users will have noticed that libraries have tightened up security in recent years. Among the strategies employed are CCTV cameras, improved sightlines for librarians, ID and bag checks at entrances and exits, and more floorwalking by security, uniformed or otherwise.

Posted on March 20, 2009 at 6:24 AM29 Comments


bob March 20, 2009 7:06 AM

@A nonny bunny: Exactly what I was thinking as soon as I saw the line that said “books are hard to identify”. Maybe so, but the PAPER that comprises the pages should be very easy to identify and even though I am a complete n00b on the subject I’d be willing to bet that 300 year old paper is easier to identify than contemporary.

So it looks like all they need to do is make a high-quality scan of some random pages throughout a rare book and they should have an identification that stands up in court.

For that matter they could scan the whole book and only have facsimilies available to the general public; kind of like I only use copies of my CDs in my car stereo in case the temperature or rough handling damages them..

Henry March 20, 2009 7:22 AM

Hate to say it, but maybe they should make it easier to steal the books. I hate the thought of rare books being cut up like that.

David March 20, 2009 8:23 AM

This prompted me to some thoughts about the protocol differences between European and American lending libraries, closed versus open stacks, and rules for handling books. With digitization and electronic libraries, maybe we’ll see a shift to a more European model of public library where all books are treated as rare artifacts. A little less egalitarian, but I kind of like to see that sort of reverence for the objects.

John N March 20, 2009 8:55 AM

This was another interesting paragraph in the article, one that people outside libraries should heed – “Now we come to the elephant in the room: insider theft. The vast majority of library staff would, of course, never dream of stealing items in their care but evidence suggests that most thefts are committed by staff or trusted insiders. Ton Cremers, the voluble and forthright former head of security at the Rijksmuseum and founder of the Museum Security Network, was one of the first people to go public on this issue. He believes that “inside jobs” account for upwards of 70 per cent of all library theft in Europe and 80 per cent in the US.”

On a separate note, it always upsets me to go to art dealers and see framed pages from books and manuscripts that have been cut apart to maximize their sale value.

unonymous March 20, 2009 8:59 AM

I know back in the 80s Mark Hofmann used to cut blank pages from the backs of old books to use when forging “found” Mormon documents. When some people started to become suspicious, he ended up setting off a couple of bombs. He was finally arrested and sentanced to life in prison.

Clive Robinson March 20, 2009 9:34 AM

@ John Moore,

“Chemical abstracts and protocols that detail how to synthesize drugs are rountinely razored out of reference books in chemistry libraries.”

In these days of camera phones with high resolution images, it begs the question of which side of the law the person with the razor stands…

After all if the information is removed from the book before it goes on the shelves then it’s not there to be photographed / copied by some one who wants to set up a home crystal meth / Angel dust lab…

Anonymous March 20, 2009 9:37 AM

Maybe they should precisely weigh books, when given to a patron, then weigh them again before the patron leaves, and make it clear at the front door that this is the policy.

Not a perfect solution, but quick. easy, and inexpensive and will probably both prevent and/or catch 80%

Chris S March 20, 2009 10:02 AM

@ “Maybe they should precisely weigh books”

Now THERE is a slick answer. The technology is already widely available, the use of it is widely understood, it scales easily for larger (more pages) works, and – a key point – it’s relatively transparent as to its operation.

One additional point to add – the librarian should do a quick scan of the work to ensure that no blank sheets have been inserted to compensate for removed pages. Of course, this should be done anyway to ensure nobody leaves their working notes inside a reference work.

JohnT March 20, 2009 10:50 AM

And not so rare books. One Seattle bookstore reported a “customer” with a list of authors, said “customer” appearing not to be a literary type, consulting his list and asking for any books by Burcoosky. The poet Charles Bukowski was meant. The store owner’s suspicions were aroused, and the non-literary type fled.

The news article reporting this says Bukowski’s books are among the most widely stolen for resale to used book stores. His books occupy more space on the shelf than any other poet’s.

paul March 20, 2009 12:26 PM

@ “Maybe they should precisely weigh books”

I’m pretty sure that a little lead foil or solder paste would serve nicely to compensate invisibly for a lost page. Or, depending on the relative humidity in the stacks and the work areas, just some heavy breathing. Changing the absorbed water content of the rest of the book by a few tenths of a percent would be essentially undetectable.

Of course the big question is what kind of thief you’re intending to deter — opportunists or semiprofessionals.

Davi Ottenheimer March 20, 2009 1:10 PM

Wow, if you’re talking about $60K in value for a piece of paper and $80K for a small book then for sure the security controls need to be better that what is described. A single key? No wonder 1,100 items were stolen before the perpetrator was caught.

Imagine a thief walking into an empty and unmonitored room with shelves of printed money…

The other Alan March 20, 2009 1:41 PM

I made the initial comment re: precisely weighing a book before it’s given out.


My intent was to balance cost and security–as we are wont to do on this blog. Costs, it would seem, would begin to rise dramatically if you do much more.

Your point is salient re: putting something in to replace the weight of paper you took out, but how good are you at guessing?

If you combine the “weigh lent, weigh returned” concept, with the “search bag on way out and we better not find a scale or we’re going to have you strip searched” concept, I think that’d be pretty cheap, not overly intrusive, quick, and quite effective.

Remember, we’re not protecting a vault full of diamonds, here. :’7

moo March 20, 2009 3:49 PM

Weighing the books won’t solve anything. The thief checks them out of the library. The library weighs them. The thief gets home and weighs them with his own scale. He cuts out the pages he wants, weighs it again, and proceeds to add solder (or whatever) and weigh again, until it matches his original measurement. Then he returns it to the library where it matches their original measurement as well.

Chris S March 20, 2009 4:31 PM

@ “Weighing the books won’t solve anything”

Perhaps this wasn’t clear, but I think we’re talking about rare books in reference collections. The book is never allowed to leave the library. There is no check out.

The weighing would happen at the time you get the book from the service desk, and then again when you return the book, likely only a few hours later. Such books would also be tagged to prevent them leaving the building without triggering an alarm.

Nostromo March 21, 2009 2:38 AM


There is no systematic difference between European and American libraries. In both continents, there are libraries with open stacks and libraries with closed stacks. Your comment is based on a small sample.

w.j. elvin March 21, 2009 6:42 AM

Other than the odd obsessive aren’t bookshop thieves the same perps who would steal jewelry or tires if it were easy? I was in three bookshops yesterday with a staff of one. The post about going virtual strikes me as on target for rare book rooms in libraries; scholars want “primary sources” so show them the book but let them prowl it digitally. One problem is penalties; educate lawmakers to the value of rare books, make it “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” thing. Let’s see, five years in a cell with the enforcer for the Gypsy Jokers or a $10,000 map, which would I choose?

Worm March 21, 2009 11:14 AM

Digital editions are a viable solutionforthe irreplaceble books. It cheaper than worrying about the possibility oflost.Just give the guys some Kindles or read them froma terminal.

Anonymous007 March 22, 2009 2:18 AM

Fahrenheit 451, anyone? <en.wikipedia.org>
“… They burn the books they read to prevent discovery, retaining the verbatim content (and possibly valid interpretations) in their minds. …”

madunkieg March 22, 2009 4:37 AM

Books are only hard to identify because libraries don’t fully record the books’ condition like good dealers do, and also usually don’t notify dealers across the world when something goes missing, again, like good dealers do. A well collated book is extremely easy to identify as the accumulated damage of 100-400 years is unique, which is part of why individual pages are often stolen.

madunkieg March 22, 2009 4:40 AM

Forgot to add, properly detailed descriptions of books’ conditions also aids in insurance claims in case of fire, flood or other destruction, so there’s a second incentive to do it. The downside is the cost, as a cataloguer must spend a great deal of time detailing the spots, tears, wormholes, foxing, etc.

Bob Meade March 22, 2009 5:08 AM

At the Mitchell Library of the State Library of New South Wales in Australia if you want to view a rare book it is done with other users at a row of desks under the watch of a librarian. If the book or artefact is important enough, you will be shown to a secure area where a librarian goes about their work about 1 metre from where you view the material.

This is probably reasonably effective against theft or page cutting by library users. I don’t know what they have in place to prevent staff theft.

Roger March 22, 2009 4:33 PM

A major problem with weighing books to detect lost pages is that the moisture content of dry paper can range from 3% to 7% by weight according to the ambient humidity. By humidity control perhaps we can reduce this range by an order of magnitude. In a typical book of, say, 500 pages (250 folios), removing a single folio will reduce the mass by only 0.4%, which is already within the range of normal variation even in a humidity controlled environment. The thief can further reduce the likelihood of detection by simply slipping in a sheet of ordinary paper — the mass won’t be quite right, but it will be close enough to reduce the signal / noise ratio even further. So, weighing will not work.

The problem can be framed thus: we have extremely high value, highly liquid assets to which random strangers are provided with almost unfettered access, and for which it is very difficult and costly to stock-take to detect losses. This is a nightmarish security scenario and it is a wonder that losses are not more severe (perhaps they are, and just haven’t been detected; or perhaps the scam is just too little known among criminals, and the publicity will make it worse.)

Fixing it requires, I think, altering at least two of these bad conditions. As some have suggested, provision of digital copies enables greater public access to knowledge while allowing the elimination of anonymous physical access. However, some human access is still required — to library staff, conservators, and specialist scholars who need the original document — and removal of anonymous access is not sufficient by itself. Unless you also invent a practical audit method, or greatly reduce the potential profits, some of these “trusted” persons will continue to steal.

It is very difficult to see how to audit book pages. Weighing, as we already discussed, is not precise enough. We could label every page with an RFID chip, but that would be a colossally expensive undertaking that would inherently damage these artefacts. Perhaps we could make a robot page turner that scans each page and checks it off against a list; a horribly complicated project, with a high risk of the robot damaging the books. We could have dual control: no-one looks at a book unless a randomly assigned curator is present throughout. That is probably totally unaffordable for most libraries.

The best I can come up with so far is CCTV: each access to a book is recorded in a controlled location, with the tapes kept until the next reader certifies that the book was intact when he received it.

Joseph March 23, 2009 10:20 AM

“For that matter they could scan the whole book and only have facsimilies available to the general public”

This is the ongoing intent of every major library. However, it’s easy to underestimate how many books are out there, how little money and time the librarians have, and how long it takes to scan an 800+ page book, even with a professional high-speed book scanner.

Besides, the “really valuable” stuff is available to see, usually with a driver’s license and sign-in, just because it’s cool. I know that sounds crazy, but there’s something about holding a 500-year-old book in your hands and knowing it’s not a replica that just needs to be experienced in order to understand. I’ve held some very early bibles and astronomical texts (with neoprene or cotton gloves, of course) and it’s just cool.

Jerie March 24, 2009 5:20 AM

“it begs the question of which side of the law the person with the razor stands…”

As an Englishman you should know it is ‘raises the question’ 🙂

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