Quietly, in the dark shadows below the radar screen of publicity, great collections are still being built today. One such collection was being assembled until recently in the German state of Hesse. The collector was an official from the state culture ministry, and one must assume he appreciated the culture expressed in books. Unfortunately, he did not appreciate the culture of honesty. The man was a thief.
This theft was unusual for its sheer volume. Generally, a thief may hit a spot once, or perhaps sneak an occasional book out of a targeted library. This particular suspect, whose name was not given, went in for both quality and quantity. While how many libraries he hit is not yet known, the one that brought his downfall was located in the town Bad Arolsen. The privately owned library was located in the Bad Arolsen Castle.
The 45-year-old public official had gained the confidence of librarians under the guise of being a researcher. He was allowed to freely search the library's stacks unsupervised, the way we all were in an earlier era. However, after a few visits, librarians noticed that some books had disappeared from the shelves. They became suspicious. So, they installed a video camera in time for his next visit. The lens caught it all. Unaware that his activities were being monitored, the gentleman stuffed his bags and clothes with books and walked out. He didn't get far.
Police were called in and discovered he had 53 books on his person. They pertained to subjects in the sciences, and were valued at as much as $10,000 each. He was arrested, after which the police proceeded to search his home for another 31 books reported missing from the Bad Arolsen library. What they discovered shocked them. He had accumulated around 5,000 books, again from the sciences, predominately from the 18th century. The oldest work was a 1680 book by German Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher, Physiologia Kircheriana experimentalis. Library tags in most books indicated that the collector had obtained most if not all of the rest of his books in the same manner. Libraries believed to have been victimized have been notified of the find.
While the exact value of the pilfered material is unknown, early estimates are that it could be several million dollars. Though the suspect was turned free, all of the books were confiscated. The suspect will face trial at a later date.
While there is not a lot of good in this story, there is one positive element for those who fear that books have lost their luster, displaced by newer electronic technologies. When was the last time you heard of someone stealing 5,000 VCR players, 5,000 tape decks, or 5,000 car phones? Other technologies come and go, but books are still worth risking your very freedom to have. That is comforting... in its own strange way.