Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2007 Issue

Librarian Headed to Jail for Book Theft

Massey

A Massey University librarian was sent to jail for stealing books.


By Michael Stillman

Several cases over the past few years have brought the issue of library theft to the forefront of public attention. However, these cases have involved outsiders sneaking off with books under their jackets, or in a notable recent one, maps sliced from ancient books slipped into a briefcase and out the door. An even more ominous case arose in New Zealand recently, where the thief was an insider, a librarian no less. Some people have felt the punishment was light in some of these recent cases, but no one seems to be claiming that in the case of one Karen Churton, New Zealand and Pacific Librarian at Massey University. She is off to prison for a serious, but not Brinks level job at the Massey rare book room.

Mrs. Churton had been employed by Massey University for 15 years when police, pursuing a much larger book theft ring, stumbled upon a book taken from that library as part of their investigation. She was questioned in July, and denied any involvement. However, the police evidently put together a strong case, because by February, she had confessed to all . . . or maybe just some. She admitted to stealing six books, but in doubts reminiscent of the map case, some people believe there were more. It is thought as many as 24 books of a similar theme to those taken by Mrs. Churton are missing, and she deleted 19 books from the library's special collections catalogue within ten days of first being questioned by police. Deleting the electronic records almost worked, as the University first thought the recovered books were not theirs. Ironically, it took the head librarian's review of a printed list to discover the library was missing some books. Print saved the day.

The 24 books in question are estimated to have a value of approximately $40,000. Of the six for which she confessed, two were returned and four are believed to be unrecoverable. Mrs. Churton agreed to pay $23,310 in reparations, most to Massey University, and some to the auction house where she took the books.

Now for the surprise part of the sentence: the judge sentenced Mrs. Churton to 11 months in the slammer. As a first-time offender, and with her cooperation and the relatively small number of books involved, she apparently expected to get probation. She has appealed. However, the Judge did not agree to her request to be let out on bail pending the appeal, indicating he did not believe it would be successful.

How does Mrs. Churton's punishment compare to others in similar circumstances? Looking back to the Smiley map case as the standard, he received 3 years for $2 million in thefts. Churton received 11 months for $40,000. Smiley's punishment came to one day in jail for each $1,826 stolen. Churton's comes to one day for every $119. She probably made more as a librarian, a job she no longer holds. Put another way, Mrs. Churton must serve a week for the same amount of money that Smiley serves a day.

Of course, these comparisons are difficult. One case was in the U.S., the other New Zealand. One case involved an insider, perhaps more reprehensible than an outside thief. Or maybe Mrs. Churton's problem was being a small time thief rather than a "respectable" businessman. Whatever the reason, this case should give libraries all over the world something to think about. You can set up the greatest record systems, use the latest surveillance cameras, inspect visitors' belongings scrupulously, but what happens when the people who monitor these security systems are the ones doing the stealing? Who polices the police? Perhaps Mrs. Churton's crime was indeed more serious, and she deserves the stiffer punishment she has received. She will certainly have plenty of time to ponder these issues. Other librarians should too.

Rare Book Monthly

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    <b>Swann June 30:</b> Edward Hopper, <i>The Railroad,</i> etching, 1922. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> Edward Hopper, <i>Sheet of Studies with Men in Hats and a Saloon Keeper,</i> pen, ink & pencil, circa 1900-05. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> Edward Hopper, <i>Night Shadows,</i> etching, 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Edward Hopper & His Contemporaries:<br>Making a Modern American Art<br>June 30, 2022
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> John Marin, <i>Woolworth Building, No. 2,</i> etching & drypoint, 1913. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> Charles Demuth, <i>Tulips,</i> watercolor & pencil, 1924. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> Edward Hopper, <i>Under Control,</i> gouache, ink & wash, circa 1907-10. $30,000 to $50,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> JESSE JAMES. Autograph Letter Signed on the attack at his home which maimed his mother and killed his nephew Archie, 6 pp, March 23, 1875. THE MOST IMPORTANT JESSE JAMES LETTER EXTANT. $300,000 to $500,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> THE LETTER THAT ARRIVED TOO LATE: An important letter from Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant across the battlefield at Cold Harbor, June 6, 1864. $120,000 to $180,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> DAVY CROCKETT. Autograph Letter Signed on his political philosophy and his dispute with Andrew Jackson, "at home Weakley County," August 18, 1831. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> GEORGE WASHINGTON. Letter Signed to Colonel Richard Gridley, the first engineer of the American Army, Morris Town, January 9, 1777. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> SCOTT FITZGERALD. <i>Tender is the Night.</i> FIRST EDITION, INSCRIBED to H.A. Swanseid. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS. <i>Tarzan of the Apes.</i> FIRST EDITION. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> J.R.R. TOLKIEN. <i>The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.</i> FIRST EDITION. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> NATHANAEL WEST. <i>The Day of the Locust.</i> PRESENTATION COPY, inscribed to director Richard Wallace in the year of publication. $6,000 to $8,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> FRANCIS PICABIA. Archive of 17 Autograph Letters signed to Jennie Thiersch on art and life, 1948-1951. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> JOHN HANCOCK. Autograph Letter Signed to his wife Dolly from the Continental Congress, 4 pp, Philadelphia, March 10-11, 1777. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> NIGHTGOWN WORN BY CHARLOTTE CARDEZA DURING THE TITANIC DISASTER AND RESCUE. $40,000 to $60,000

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