Over the past year, dozens of librarians and curators from across Kentucky have fired off letters to U.S. District Court Judge Jennifer Coffman in Lexington, urging her not to go easy on four defendants who stole rare manuscripts and sketches from the Transylvania University special collections library in December 2004.
The crime, they wrote, was serious. The four college-age defendants assaulted a librarian and robbed the public of valuable and important cultural history -- just to make a quick buck.
The letters' strong words were motivated by more than moral outrage. There was also fear.
It's been a bad year for thefts from cultural institutions, libraries in particular. Thursday -- just two days after the four defendants were sentenced to seven years in federal prison for stealing from Transylvania -- news broke of another theft of historical artifacts from a Kentucky institution. This time the thief was a 70-year-old retired executive who pinched more than 53 documents and other objects from the Filson Historical Society in Louisville.
In another high-profile case, a sharp-eyed librarian caught E. Forbes Smiley III, a map expert, cutting rare maps out of books at the Yale University library earlier this year.
Now librarians, curators and archivists -- the caretakers of the nation's cultural, literary and historical treasures -- are getting tough on security, tweaking policies and keeping a closer eye on their collections, watching who comes in and what goes out.
But they face challenges in finding money to pay for more security as well as balancing the needs of security with those of public access. Some say cultural institutions have been reluctant to report thefts to authorities because bad publicity might scare off would-be donors. Some security experts say libraries in particular have been slow to realize that their special collections are at risk.
A boom in popular interest in the antiquities trade, fanned by the Internet and appraisal shows on television, could be providing motivation for the crimes, some say.
Eric Brooks, the curator at Ashland, Henry Clay's historic home in Lexington, and president of the Historical Confederation of Kentucky, said he often receives calls from people who want him to appraise attic treasures.
"As a result of EBay culture and shows like Antiques Roadshow, people have learned that these things have a monetary value," Brooks said.
Mike Courtney, owner of Lexington's Black Swan books and a rare book dealer, said the Internet has fueled not just awareness, but a market.
"Because of the Internet, there's more demand and it's easier. You can put it online on EBay or a site and find a customer readily, which makes the price go up."
Many institutions tightened security policies in 2000, after a book of American Indian lithographs was stolen from Centre College in Danville.
Centre librarian Stan Campbell said access to the rare books collection has been curtailed. Only those with a letter of introduction can look at Centre's collections.
"It's unfortunate, but those are the steps we had to take," he said.
Many universities and institutions are reluctant to speak about security changes in detail. As Susan Brown, head librarian at Transylvania, put it, "the first rule of security is not to talk about security."
University of Kentucky officials said they have been looking into security upgrades because of the Transylvania incident. Like other institutions, UK has to weigh the needs of researchers who want to look at original documents against increasing needs for security.