What does it take to catch a thief?

I recently listened to the recording of the 2010 ALA conference program sponsored by RBMS, To Catch a Thief: Cataloging and the Security of Special Collections (the recording is available on the RBMS website).

Nina Schneider (William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles) moderated the session and kicked things off with a series of questions about balancing the need for efficiency in cataloging with the possible risk posed by less attention to including details likely to identify (and recover) stolen books. In an era of budget constraints and heightened expectations about availability of collections, “what happens if something happens?”

Travis McDade (University of Illinois College of Law and author of The Book Thief: The True Crimes of-Daniel Spiegelman) delivered an amusing account of books that have gone missing, and the thieves that have spirited them from libraries. In his telling, almost all the thefts were either inside jobs or resulted from the thief getting too chummy with library staff and attaining insider status. All were apprehended when the books hit the market and someone had a hunch that something was not right.

Mark Dimunation (Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress) gave a very thoughtful and insightful talk on the main question at hand: does cataloging prevent theft?
Transparency begins with the catalog record, which can document uniqueness of items and therefore lead to the return of the items. Books can be altered by thieves, who will frequently strip identifying marks and book plates, but there are other unique characteristics that can be recorded. There was a time when we would have responded to theft by redoubling our efforts and dedicating ourselves to better (or at least more) cataloging. This cataloging for law enforcement, as has been called for by Katherine Kyes Leab (in our May 2010 webinar, and elsewere) was not really attainable even in the “good old days.” In the real world our catalogs are less than perfect and do not reflect a single systematic approach, but rather reflect the all of the variations in cataloging practice (and even carriers of catalog records) over time. Cataloging of rare books is as varied as the libraries that rely on them and is certainly far from consistent: local annotations can be missing, copy cataloging protocols may favor more generic cataloging, etc.

In practice the Library of Congress has adopted a risk management approach and catalogs materials according to defined tiers of risk (platinum for national treasures, sold, silver, and so on down the line to copper for materials not likely to be retained). This mirrors what many institutions have done, even informally, which is to treat first editions, incunables, etc. differently than ephemera and pamphlets. In regards to theft prevention, do we have a choice between robust and minimal? Does it help? Does it matter?

Rare book cataloging has traditionally been done according to the “touch it once” principal, so in practice records are not corrected or updated except for on an ad hoc basis. Certainly given realities, a different approach is called for. Dimunation has been intrigued by James Asher’s call for progressive bibliography in which catalog records are viewed as hubs where information can be linked in, or hung on the core record as necessary. In this way, additional information can accrue over time, and doesn’t necessarily need to be contained in the catalog. Links to information that lives outside the catalog a virtual vertical file that can document unique characteristics, and help form the fingerprint of an item.

My colleague Jennifer Schaffner gave a presentation on MissingMaterials.org (we’ve blogged it previously). Some Missing Materials tips: it doesn’t matter if your holdings are recorded in WorldCat or not – if there’s a record, you can use it (and thus leverage the good work of catalogers worldwide). You can add your own notes to aide with identification — here the catalog record forms the core or hub that other information is attached to (so perhaps Missing Materials is an example of the progressive cataloging model that Dimunation referred to?). Finally, overcoming theft is not about finding the right whiz-bang application, but more about changing social norms. The willingness to share openly, both about thefts and about prosecution, is more important than any particular technological implementation.

The discussion for this session was very meaty, with a lot of debate and discussion of the best ways to prevent and deal with theft of materials.

Finally, I will leave you with a joke from the session. An archivist a rare book librarian and a thief walk into a bar. “There’s nothing funny about book theft,” said the then-chair of RBMS. And that was that.

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One Comment

  1. I think any time we look for a “one size fits all” security solution, we are setting ourselves up for colossol failure. I was encouraged by the variety of questions addressing multiple security procedures, not just “cataloging for law enforcement.”

    Security needs to be multi-faceted and yes, one component of that might be cataloging. But I think we are deluding ourselves if we believe cataloging can act as a deterrent – it hasn’t and it won’t, because it can’t. The only benefit to descriptive cataloging (and, granted, it has the potential to be a huge one) is the additional recovery options that become available when a repository is able to demonstrate ownership. So frequently there is no record of ownership at all, leading to failed prosecution and recovery efforts and this is perhaps the biggest tragedy.

    The theme that should run through all prevention and recovery efforts is transparency, as it is clearly the most effective, proven strategy for addressing theft. This is part of why I’m continually encouraged by the Missing Materials blog. It is far from perfect, but it’s clearly a huge step in the right direction, and doesn’t necessitate an overly fussy approach to security, transparency, cataloging or anything else associated with a theft. It’s utilitaarian, flexible and open – that’s where the priority needs to be when it comes to theft prevention and recovery because it’s the only thing that is effective.

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