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.
"There is a tension between use and preservation," said Bill Marshall, curator of manuscripts at UK.
At Morehead State University, the viewing area for the special collections is in a public area so that more than one librarian can watch to see if someone is stealing, said Clara B. Potter, a Morehead librarian.
At the University of Louisville, a list of the library's special collections is available online and in a paper catalog. The library has no plans to change that policy any time soon, said James Anderson, a curator of photographic archives at U of L.
"We're still open to the public, but we have more security measures in place, such as a librarian would never be alone with someone that is looking at something of value," Anderson said.
Centre's Campbell says the growth of the Internet is, in the words of William Blake, "the marriage of heaven and hell" for libraries.
Like U of L, Centre has its special collections listed online. He thinks that's how the thief found out about the American Indian lithographs. On the other hand, the library was able to track down the stolen items by alerting antiquarian experts through Internet mailing lists.
"It's an interesting paradox," Campbell said.
Stevan Layne, a security consultant who runs workshops for national museum and library associations and advises institutions such as the Speed Museum in Louisville, said making an institution's holdings public is not a problem. What matters is the type of security a library or institution employs.
Layne stresses thoroughly vetting those who view valuable items. Librarians should also screen all packages, book bags and other material when someone leaves a special collections area, he said.
Eileen Brady, a librarian at Washington State University who lectures around the country on library security, says librarians tend to be "ostriches" about crime.
"Part of the problem is that we have a culture of thinking that nothing ever happens in libraries," Brady said.
"Things are improving, but not enough -- higher education is facing budget shortfalls, and libraries aren't getting as much money as they used to."
Brady's institution was the victim of Steven Blumberg, one of the most prolific book thieves in history. Blumberg stole $20 million in books and documents from more than 300 libraries and museums in the 1980s.
A donor offered to buy the facility new electronic security equipment after the thefts were discovered, Brady said.
In the Louisville case that came to light last week, the Filson's video monitors picked up Donald E. Eckard, a 70-year-old advertising executive, taking items from the historical society's collection. Richard H.C. Clay, the Filson's lawyer, praised Filson's security systems and staff for catching Eckard.
Most book thieves operate like Eckard, quietly stealing valuable sketches, maps and letters over time. What shocked librarians about the Transylvania theft was the physical assault on special collections librarian B.J. Gooch, who was incapacitated with a stun gun and then tied up.
During this week's sentencing hearing for the four thieves -- Stephen Reinhard, Eric Borsuk, Charles Allen II and Warren Lipka -- Gooch told a federal judge that the scars from her assault are still fresh and deep. Her terror was felt by her colleagues at other institutions.
The Transylvania case "combined the most frightening elements of blue-collar crime with white-collar library crime," said Miles Harvey, an author of a book about a famous map thief. "It was a like a 7-11 knock-off with armed assailants while taking cultural artifacts."
Most librarians are women. And most special collections librarians work alone -- like Gooch -- in specially designed soundproof rooms.
"As primarily women working in often isolated situations, we are always vulnerable to these kind of attacks," wrote Potter, the Morehead State University librarian, in a letter to Coffman.
Despite the recent cases, many institutions say they have no plans to bar the public from their collections.
But Harvey is concerned that inadequate security and more thefts ultimately will lead to less access to cultural objects.
"There is something incredibly powerful with coming in contact with books that have been around for hundreds of years, thinking of the hands that have touched it and the eyes that have wandered those pages," he said.
"It really does put you in touch with our history. For the sake of our culture I think more people need to do that, not less."
Transylvania book thieves