Police Blotter: 284,000 Stolen Books, and a Scholar-Thief
By Michael Stillman
For those who thought library theft was a big problem in the West, a survey conducted by Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun found that 284,000 books were stolen from Japanese libraries in 2007. The books are valued at 400 million yen, or over $4 million in American currency. The librarians expressed the frustrations common to libraries in the West - tight budgets make it difficult to employ the type of security systems needed. Of course, $4 million could provide employment for a good number of security guards in these days of declining job opportunities.
These are not books taken from rare book rooms. The average value of $14 per book suggests something new more than something old. And, one of the tricks these petty thieves have used surely indicates they do not understand the rare book trade. To disguise their thefts, many leave the dust jackets in place on the shelves. Any self-respecting book expert understands that the value is in the dust jackets, not the books. Still, this is a lot of theft, and a few caches later discovered indicate there may be people stocking the shelves of a used book store or flea market with these tomes.
However, it is not the typical, newer book that is the major issue for libraries, even though 284,000 of them managed to disappear in a year. After all, these were heading for 25-cents-a-book library sales in a few years anyway. Businesses call this "shrinkage." Nor is it the Gutenberg Bible or Shakespeare First Folio from the rare book room that is a concern for most librarians. Most libraries don't have such rooms, and those that do should have learned a thing or two about security by now, such as don't let in strangers with razor blades. What may be the biggest problem are the in-between books, not Gutenberg, not Nora Roberts, that can be found on the shelves of smaller libraries, perhaps virtually forgotten. They may be books of local interest, perhaps worth a few hundred dollars. These libraries do not have sealed rare book rooms, staff to monitor every visitor, or knowledge in security. It was libraries like this that the Montana eBay bookseller recently sentenced to several years in prison preyed upon for his stock. He took literally thousands of items before anyone even noticed something was missing. This could be the toughest challenge.
This is not to minimize the problem of individuals who steal at a higher level. For example, a guilty plea has been entered in a major theft in Britain, similar to the Forbes Smiley case in America. Similar, that is, except for motive. While Smiley sliced maps out of very valuable antiquarian books to supply a map selling business, 60-year-old Farhad Hakimzadeh simply kept the maps and other pages he cut out of books in the British and Bodleian Libraries. Some of the items he pilfered were found either bound or loosely inserted into copies of the books he possessed. This indicates that he may have been trying to improve lesser copies he owned. However, many of the items he took have not been located, and all of this still leaves us with the question of why someone of Mr. Hakimzadeh's reputation and apparent wealth would resort to such activities.