Lessons from a Theft

Western Washington University has almost half a million state, Federal, and Canadian documents. In February 2006, we suffered the theft of hundreds of pages (mostly maps and illustrations) from Congressional Serial Set volumes. All the Federal publications dated from before we became a depository in 1964 so they are state, not Federal, property. Working with university police as well as local state and Federal law enforcement officials and after purchasing some of our stolen property, we were integral in  capturing and convicting the thief. Details can be found in several places, such as in my Fall DLC 2009 presentation, "Protecting Rare Government Documents: Lessons From A Theft" and on Criminal Brief. What follows is some of what we learned.

Before the thieves arrive…

  • Examine your collection. Is there rare and valuable material in your Government stacks? Some useful sources are by Hulyk, Sleeman, and Walsh. We had checked our collection, but were not pessimistic enough. We have since locked up our earliest Serial Set volumes, plus later ones with illustrations.
  • Examine your environment. Can a patron use material unobserved? “Our” thief apparently sliced out hundreds of pages during one busy day. Put tempting material in busier areas. Consider motion detectors, security tape, and similar measures.
  • Examine your policies. What should a staff member do if they see something suspicious? A staffer found our thief’s behavior odd and checked on him three times, but there was no policy telling her to do more. You can also find photos of “at large” book thieves on the Web and distribute them to service points.
  • Consult experts. Ask the police to examine your library. They may have some useful tips and will gain awareness of what your collections.

When the thieves (possibly) arrive…

  • Observe and report. If a staff member sees suspicious behavior by a patron they should consult colleagues. Have a policy on confronting possible thieves; make sure it is understood by library staff. Our university police are willing to do a “walk around” and make themselves visible without confronting any individual. If someone pointed out a possible thief to me, I would start visibly taking photos of the area. I doubt if privacy concerns would come up because the thief would scram.
  • Know what to look for. Razor blades, utility knives, and magnets (to desensitize security tapes) are dead giveaways. Our thief also carried self-addressed U.S. Post Office express mail envelopes. Once sealed, they can’t be opened without a court order.
  • Follow through. The main reason our thief went to prison is that the next work day the suspicious staffer searched for the volumes he had been using. This is how we knew we were looking at one event and not just “a bad year.”

If you discover a theft…

  • Reveal. It’s tempting to hide it, but morally and practically wrong. Tell the police. Try to determine the extent of the damage. We started with six sliced volumes and found over one hundred.
  • Network. Notify local librarians and book dealers and, if Federal documents are involved, the FDLP community.
  • Investigate. Book thieves may break other laws. Our culprit also got a parking ticket on our campus the day of the theft.
  • Hunt. We created permanent searches on eBay for fifty of our missing pages. Within a month a prime suspect was clear. We purchased two maps through surrogates and the state crime lab proved that they came from our books.
  • Value. Law enforcement will want to know the value of the stolen material. Remember, sentences (and to some extent police priorities) are based on the value stolen. We calculated what our thief was getting for each stolen publication on eBay.
  • Persist. After we had the parking ticket, the crime lab evidence, and a visual ID based on driver’s licenses, it still took over a year to find a willing law enforcement agency.

If the thief is caught…

  • Publicize. It discourages thieves, shows that you are not an easy target, and demonstrates that you are protecting the public’s resources.
  • Network. Encourage other libraries to search for evidence that the thief was there. Police may be able to provide lists of loot found; other libraries should see it.
  • Claim. This is when those lists of stolen material come in handy. We received 192 pages back. When the FBI failed to find owners for 200 stolen books, we persuaded a judge to give them to us.

That’s an overview. If you have questions, please contact me.

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