The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Main Branch

How about this for a movie idea…over twenty years, a Pittsburgh librarian steals $8 million dollars’ worth of rare books and maps from the very collection it is his job to protect. He works with the owner of a prestigious Pittsburgh rare bookshop who acts as his fence, and they rake in the profits.

If we told it from the point of view of the thieves, it could be a great caper, like Ocean’s 11.

But what if I told you the thief netted only $134,000 from these thefts, was caught and is now facing jail time?

Now it sounds like a bumbling idiot comedy starring Will Ferrell.

Would you watch it?

As you already know if you follow Pittsburgh news, this is no movie script but a true ripped-from-the-headlines tale of a disgraced librarian and his bookshop-owning partner in crime.

The librarian’s job was to watch over this collection and protect it from the public. Instead, he allegedly cannibalized it, cutting maps out of books with an X-Acto knife and rolling them up to take with him.  He stole rare books by Issac Newton, Adam Smith, and a journal written by George Washington that had Thomas Jefferson’s signature in it.

He passed them off to the owner of a local bookshop, who forged provenance documents and sold the stolen items to unsuspecting collectors, libraries, and bookshops.

I’ve spent many hours writing and reading in the library where the theft took place, and it is painful to see this shame brought down on such a wonderful institution. I’ve bought books at Caliban Book Store, the shop implicated.

I won’t pretend to know why these men did what they did, and I won’t presume to judge them. There’s enough judgment on the internet, and this blog focuses on what is good and funny in day to day life.

But the items in libraries—especially historical items—belong to all of us, not just a privileged few. What a great gift it is to be able to see Thomas Jefferson’s signature or read accounts written by the Founding Fathers.  Sure, many—okay, most—people have no interest in looking at such things, but that’s a bit beside the point.

I once saw Candice Millard speak. She’s a historian who wrote a fascinating biography of President James Garfield (before I read this book, I didn’t even remember there was a president Garfield, and I cannot recommend this book highly enough).  Anyway, Ms. Millard was talking about the hours she spent in libraries researching the book, and among the gathered materials she found an envelope with a lock of the former president’s hair from when he was a boy.  She was so inspired by that moment, and I was inspired by her passionate recollection.

What a shame if that envelope had been stolen and sold to a wealthy collector, who kept it locked away in a drawer somewhere.

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is a wonderful institution that has enriched my life as well as the life of many others. I’m sure it will take steps to prevent such a thing from happening again, as well they should.

But I can’t help but think those steps will—out of necessity—make it harder for the average person to access the rare and collectible items.

I can’t blame them, but I can mourn the loss of the items, and the inevitable loss of access to such documents.

As the saying goes, thanks for spoiling it for the rest of us.


Postscript1: You can read more about the case here.

Postscript 2:  I wrote about the girls I met in this library here.