Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2008 Issue

Libraries and Book Theft: A Role Reversal

Berlin

The Berlin State Library.


By Michael Stillman

Two Ohio men were indicted on October 2 in connection with the theft of two rare and valuable books from the Rurtherford B. Hayes Presidential Library. Joshua McCarty and Zachary Scranton were charged with taking a copy of the Maxwell Code, valued at over $100,000, and another book from the library in August (see last month's issue of AE Monthly under the "Archives" tab for details). The Maxwell Code was the first book published in the American West (Ohio was still considered part of the "West" in 1796). As usual, the two were caught when they allegedly attempted to sell the merchandise. Some things are too rare not to draw attention.

This is certainly not the first library book theft we have seen lately. The previous month, a Montana man was sentenced to several years in prison for stealing thousands of items from libraries all across the American and Canadian West and selling them on eBay. However, this brings us to an article recently published in Der Spiegel, a German magazine, which tragically and thoroughly reverses the typical relationship between libraries and book theft. The magazine reports that there are likely over one million books in German libraries that were stolen from their legitimate owners.

This sad reality goes back to the Nazi era, when thousands if not millions of books were confiscated from private owners, mostly Jews. Some were confiscated by German authorities when Jews were still escaping from the country, others were taken from those sent to concentration camps. This is the terrible legacy the Nazis left behind, and while the country has made many strides in returning works of art and similar highly valuable items to the families of their original owners, books cause a more daunting challenge. The huge volume, lesser value, and difficulty in tracing the origins make it hard to return them. Fortunately, the Nazis often kept detailed records of things normal people would try to hide, and some books have inscriptions and the like that help provide identity. Nevertheless, libraries throughout Germany reportedly may hold over a million of these stolen books, and efforts are only just starting to be made to return them where possible.

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