Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2007 Issue

Librarian Headed to Jail for Book Theft

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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