You Can Go Home Again
Geoffrey D. Smith
Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It by Travis McDade (Oxford University Press, 2013) chronicles the free-wheeling looting of collegiate and public libraries in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Raiding primarily East coast libraries, particularly the New York Public Library, the book thieves would fence their books on Book Row, the legendary used book store center on Fourth Avenue in New York City. Though most book sellers were reputable, others were complicit in the thefts though criminal prosecution proved difficult. Library security was extremely lax those many decades ago and even volumes sequestered as rare books were easily accessible and vulnerable to theft. Most libraries, then, were easy targets for the highly organized gangs of book thieves who victimized “Columbia, Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton, and other small university and public libraries throughout the Northeast.” (144)
Current security measures in rare book libraries are much more stringent than they were eighty years ago. Standard operating procedures in most contemporary rare book libraries include dual coverage of reading rooms, sign in sheets and ID requirements, security cameras and improved documentation of holdings. Still, at Ohio State (and many other institutions) many older, relatively rare books were kept in the general collections for decades and were not transferred to the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, on a large scale, until the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. A systematic review of general collections at many research libraries was incited by the influential report “Preserving Research Collections: A Collaboration between Librarians and Scholars” (1999) issued by the Task Force on the Preservation of the Artifact made up of the Association of Research Libraries, the Modern Language Association and the American Historical Association with input from numerous other learned societies. Although the transfer process at Ohio State secured many valuable items from general circulation, it also revealed that many volumes were missing, most likely due to theft.
This past summer, it came to my attention from John Howell, a west coast bookseller, that several volumes of eighteenth-century French books, which were being offered for sale, had markings from the Ohio State University Library (perforated title pages, a practice frowned upon today, but, as evidenced here, an effective means of book identification). A search of our catalog records revealed that the items were, indeed, listed as part of OSUL, but that they had been missing since 2001, the period when Rare Books was doing its sweep of the general collections. Although the items were identified as being missing since 2001, their actual disappearance may have been ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more years earlier. Heaven knows where they had been in the meantime, but they were now in the hands of Dato Mio, a New York City artist, who cooperated greatly in expediting their return to Ohio State. They are now stored in the Rare Books stacks rather than the general collections.
We can only estimate how many other early books have left the OSUL shelves over the years. In terms of rare book value, the returned items were modest, $1,500 – $2,000, but their scholarly value may be of great significance to our faculty, students and visiting scholars. More importantly, especially during this festive time of year, their return restores faith in the good intentions of people everywhere: time cannot face good works or good deeds.