Rare Book Monthly

Articles - December - 2006 Issue

British Justice Not So Tough On Book Theft After All

Manchester

Manchester Central Library (from their website).


By Michael Stillman

"Like a drop of oil on a still pond, the number of his victims spreads with time. Smiley's victims include students, scholars, academics, the general public and individuals yet to be born who will not have the opportunity to sit at a desk, open a leather bound volume, and see the world as Archbishop Cranmer and others saw it in the 16th Century."

The British Library made an emotional appeal to the U.S. District Court a little while back in the Forbes Smiley case, seeking stiffer punishment for the admitted map thief. It fell on deaf ears. The court looked at Smiley's plea and the surrounding circumstances, and sentenced him to 3 1/2 years in prison, roughly half of what the British Library thought appropriate. It is easy to understand their distress. The theft of old treasures from the public trust inflicts a greater loss on society then, say, the theft of a six-pack from Seven-Eleven. Budweiser (unfortunately) will quickly produce another. Old books and maps are irreplaceable treasures of our culture and history. The British librarians returned home from their trip to America depressed and disappointed. It is understandable.

So, it is hard not to miss the irony of a British court's sentence when a similar case crossed its docket a few weeks back. One Norman Buckley, a librarian at the Manchester Central Library, stole books from its collection. Buckley was more prolific than Smiley by a factor of 5-1, stealing some 500 books. However, they were not quite so valuable, the estimated total being 175,000 British pounds (around $335,000 in U.S. dollars). Smiley's haul was around $2 million. Nothing was on the level of Smiley's best maps, though Buckley's plunder included a 16th century Chaucer valued at 35,000 pounds (US $67,000). One suspects that the lesser value of Buckley's haul reflects what was available to him, rather than a conscious decision to leave more valuable material behind. In other words, I doubt that Buckley was on a substantially higher moral plain than Smiley, though the latter may have better understood the cultural damage he was inflicting. Nevertheless, some of the broadsides relating to Manchester history he took imply a comparable disregard for that community's preservation of its history and culture.

Unlike Smiley, who sold his wares to rich collectors and institutions, Buckley chose the modern route -- eBay. Naturally, his activities also came to a halt in the modern way. Smiley was caught when he dropped a razor blade on the floor; Buckley was caught when a book expert noticed an antiquarian title with the Manchester Library stamp offered for sale on eBay. Smiley was careful to bleach any such library connections from his maps, so he was not caught until a bit of carelessness. Buckley was caught by abject stupidity.

Like Smiley, Buckley pleaded guilty and cooperated in effecting the return of as many books as possible. Again like Smiley, he made some lame excuse about personal problems being the motive, rather than greed. In Buckley's case, it was supposedly because his girlfriend left him. A wise woman.

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