Watchdogs Guarding Watchdogs: Library Loss Prevention

Some books are harder to steal than others.

One of the eleven remaining copies of the Bay Psalm Book, for example, would prove difficult to access, difficult to remove, and very, very difficult to resell without arousing suspicion. Produced in 1640, the Bay Psalm Books originated from a press in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They were the first books printed in the New World. The last sale of one drew mainstream news coverage from around the globe in response to the $14,165,000 price it fetched. That level of verified monetary value ensures the Bay Psalm Books will be well-watched by those responsible for their care.

By contrast, a copy of The Surgeon’s Mate by Patrick O’Brian would be markedly easier to appropriate and to liquidate. A novel of some fame as part of the Aubrey-Maturin series of books—best known for the film adaptation of 2003 starring Russell Crowe—a first edition of The Surgeon’s Mate would earn far less for the scurrilous individual attempting to profit by theft. Book value fluctuates over time according to a complex alchemy of quality, rarity, and demand, but one could hope in today’s market to exchange a clean first printing of The Surgeon’s Mate from 1980 for around $1000, making it much less likely to be guarded with any particular care.

While a profit of $1000 is less exhilarating than a profit of $14 million, the difference between possible success and probable failure could be sufficient to tempt theft. A somewhat rare copy of The Surgeon’s Mate is, in fact, much more likely to be stolen than is an extremely rare copy of the Bay Psalm Book, precisely because it is seen as a less desirable target due to its lower value. Operating on the long tail of rare book inventory, however, a thief could amass a fortune a little at a time after the fashion of Amazon: acquiring and selling many texts of comparatively limited value, like The Surgeon’s Mate, while those responsible for rare book preservation watch carefully over the few texts of tremendous value, like the Bay Psalm Books. Theft on a grand scale may mean theft of quality, but it may also mean theft of quantity.


Baby Groot is excited. Are you? (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014)

I’ve been thinking a lot about book theft recently because of an internship opportunity that almost worked out. (Yeah, it’s as painful as it sounds. But I’m taking Jennifer’s advice.) My research regarding rare books security has been staggeringly interesting, and it’s led me to a couple observations that I thought might be of use to us all as young Guardians of– well, if not the galaxy, at least the Galaxy of Information!

Observation 1: We have met the enemy, and he is us.*

Protecting collections of rare books and manuscripts is the purview of their collectors. According to RBMS (the Rare Book and Manuscript Section of the American Library Association, for the uninitiated), it is the ethical responsibility of the librarians in charge of valuable collections “[to] ensure that their materials remain intact and secure from theft.” Additionally, ACRL (Ahem… the Association of College and Research Libraries) acknowledges that “stresses arise naturally from the fact that special collections often have great monetary as well as documentary and aesthetic value” and therefore advises that strong measures of protection should be enacted to secure rare collections. However, recent cases of spectacular thefts from collections of rare books and manuscripts (Check out this, this, and this!) have drawn attention to flaws in the protective systems of institutions tasked with safeguarding civilization’s textual heritage.

The most surprising aspect of such special collection thefts to common observers—and the most predictable to security professionals—is that they are often carried out by library insiders. Although library-specific information on annual inventory shrink is not readily available, retail measures suggest that employee theft should be at or near the top of the list of concerns when assessing threats to the collection.

According to a recent study (Bear with me, it will blow your mind.), average loss across all retail environments was due more to employee theft (42.9%) than any other cause, including shoplifting (37.4%), resulting in a total shrink rate of 1.74%. Applying those figures to a purely fictitious library—absent available data from any real library —a large collection of, say, 10 million items would experience a loss of 17,400 items in a single year, and 7,464 of those items would have been lost due to theft by library staff. (Told you so.) Given those figures, thefts of thousands of valuable items, like that perpetrated by former library director Marino Massimo De Caro at the Girolamini Library in Naples, appear less surprising.

Observation 2: We are also the solution–but only if we work together.

Loss prevention is fiendishly difficult. The two leading causes of shrink—employee theft and theft by non-employees—present different problems and require different solutions. Generally, retail institutions employ divisions of highly trained, specialized individuals in their efforts to understand and to minimize shrink. Libraries have not traditionally paid so much attention to the possibility of inventory loss, despite the efforts of many dedicated professionals to ensure the safety of the collections under their care. As noted by Everett C. Wilkie, Jr., editor of the RBMS Guide to Security Considerations and Practices and perhaps the most vocal proponent of security in contemporary libraries, loss has always been a problem for libraries; only recently, however, have libraries begun to systematically attempt to prevent it.** The growing commitment to theft prevention is a critical shift though. “People,” Wilkie explains, “are really the only element that matter in a security system. Individuals make the choices that lead to thefts, and other individuals make the choices to stop them.” Particularly in libraries with collections of rare books and manuscripts, proactive choices to prevent theft are necessary to protect the cultural heritage such collections represent. Librarians are best supported in their efforts to ensure security when they employ every possible tool at their disposal—for the would-be thieves they wish to thwart certainly will.

The most valuable tool for success may be the implementation of smart procedures designed to ensure that multiple individuals have transparent access to collection materials. Rather than limiting access to a single person, requiring several people to access materials in agreed-upon ways creates opportunities for everyone to know–not feel, guess, or think–that everyone is behaving according to the rules. Rather than one person taking responsibility for all the steps of item intake, those steps could be shared among a several staff members. Reshelving also could be done by teams that work together to cross-check each other’s work. Shelf reading–that joy of librarianship–could similarly benefit from a team-based approach. When dealing with rare books particularly, the savings in loss prevention may far outweigh the potential deficit due to theft.

A particularly tense moment in the plot of The Surgeon’s Mate, a novel of historical fiction, finds one of the two protagonists reflecting upon the nature of the intelligence forces that have captured him in Napoleonic France during the wars of the early nineteenth century. The various branches of the military services are, the character reflects, “charged with the surveillance of the rest and of one another, watchdogs guarding watchdogs.” Good security acknowledges both the necessity for and the destructiveness of this kind of mindset. If “people”—as Wilkie thoughtfully reminds readers that all librarians are—behave like watchdogs guarding watchdogs in pursuing the safety of their collections, they risk violating other ethical priorities. Even Wilkie, after all, also notes that “a security program will always entail a loss of somebody’s privacy.” However, if librarians do not guard their collections with the vigilance of watchdogs, they risk defaulting on the trust of the public they serve.

* You’re welcome Pogo fans, quotation historians, and grammar wonks. ❤
** If you, like me, are nerdily fascinated with collection security, I cannot recommend highly enough the RBMS Guide to Security Considerations and Practices. I would also point the interested to the RBMS Security Committee website. And, if you’re really interested in the latest in loss prevention research, focus your search terms on retail rather than libraries. There’s a surprising amount of crossover value in the available information, and the profit-based retail sector has spent a lot more money on understanding shrink than has any library I know of.

Thanks to Jonathan Kriz for the cover image (CC 2.0 BY). Sometimes the best watchdogs appear unassuming.

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