Barrage Of Thefts Hits Rare Book Rooms
So much for the positive. The more serious, and not so pleasant issue is security. Presumably, the security is tighter than it was when Thomas Wise was slicing pages out of antiquarian books at the beginning of the last century. He never had to deal with security cameras. Still, basic instincts to trust apparently honest people, plus the tendency to let down your guard, opened the doors to the rare book rooms to these dishonorable people. A seemingly scrupulously honest researcher, a trusted employee, is all it takes and the defenses go down. A thief commits his crime in full view of the camera and no one ever looks at the film. All of the gates and locks in the world won't do much good if the fox is allowed in the henhouse unsupervised. The unfortunate reality is everyone must be treated like a thief because just enough of us are.
There is one factor that may help to keep rare book collections safer in the future, but this has other potentially more significant ramifications as well. With the announcement last month that Google has begun a massive digitization process of antiquarian books, a process already started by others, in time there will be less need for researchers to access the physical books themselves. Perhaps those studying watermarks and binding techniques may still need to see the physical books, but for the typical researcher interested in text, or other plainly visible features such as typefaces, access to the books will no longer be necessary. They can view the books from the comfort of their own home online. The antique books themselves can remain securely on the library's shelves.
Of course this leads to that other question: why, in a digitized world, does the library even need to have these books? What is the point of having vast sums of money tied up in books that remain unused and unseen in hidden, secure, and costly climate-controlled vaults? Shouldn't that money be used for something that will actually benefit the library's patrons? Perhaps that's what Peter Bellwood was thinking when he helped himself to the valuable parts of those old texts, though I doubt that such philosophical questions were foremost on his mind. However, these issues will need to be on the minds of rare book librarians in the years ahead, and it is not likely to be pleasant for those who maintain these wonderful collections. Assumptions about libraries and books that have stood for centuries will be challenged by technology that compacts what used to be centuries worth of change into a few short years.