Dear Reader

Random musings on reading and books from a librarian in training.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Library theft on a grand scale

There probably won’t be a CSI Library any time soon. If there was, however, two librarians at Western Washington University should definitely star.

Thanks to the duo’s observations and quick thinking, a Montana man faces 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

I stumbled upon this fascinating and infuriating story when looking up another library thief – Thomas Pilaar, who was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison and a $53,549 fine. According news reports, Pilaar, who lives in Denver, had seven library cards under his name and other people’s names for multiple libraries in the Denver area. He used those cards to “borrow” more than 1,000 books and DVDS that he sold online.

The Rocky Mountain News breaks down the costs to the libraries:

“Denver Public Library last year estimated its losses at $35,000, while Douglas County reported that Pilaar had $11,000 worth of overdue materials, mostly pricey coffee-table books and DVDs.”

According to the Associated Press, a woman who purchased books on Craigslist notified authorities after spotting librarian identification.

I have to admit this intrigued me because a number of online booksellers/ swapping sites feature old library books – presumably ones the library or friends of organization sold. I’ve bought old library books online. The friends of library group for my library also has an amazing sale every year and I’ve bought CDs and books that I’ve posted on my paperbackswap and swap a cd accounts. To stress I legitimately bought those items.

Not too long ago I purchased a hard cover Charlaine Harris book at, which is owned by eBay, that was marked as an ex-library book. I’m taking this seller at the word and have no reason to doubt them. As did the people I sent CDs to on Swap A CD. But, it does make me wonder, how can you really tell that these books/CDs/records/ movies were sold by the library?

I would think this could be a very tough challenge especially for sites like eBay,, Amazon or Craigslist where the volume of items being sold is mammoth.

Target: rare and priceless works

James Lyman Brubaker was also selling pilfered items on eBay, but his theft was much more sinister and insidious than Pilaar’s.

This is quite the tale. According to the Calgary Sun, after librarian Julie Fitzgerald thought a patron was acting strangely near the rare books she made to sure to examine them.

“When the man left, the books -- government material dating back to and possibly handled by President Abraham Lincoln -- were found to have been cut with a razor, with some 648 pages gone. “ (Source Calgary Sun, emphasis mine).

In a truly tv twist, fellow librarian Rob Lopresti, who writes mystery novels, was on the case. They were able to track down items on eBay that matched what was missing and set a trap using third party bidders.

Once a crime lab verified the library books were the source of the auctioned goods, police had enough for a warrant.

And folks, it just gets crazier from there.

Police discovered about 1,000 books – of which 832 may have been stolen. Included in that collection, were a number of priceless, one-of-a-kind first editions. Records showed that Brubaker had 9,000 eBay sales and made out with a half a million dollars.

The Great Falls Tribune reported that investigation indicated 108 volumes of government books were vandalized and 648 pages of maps and colored plates were missing.

More from the Tribune:

“Of the 832 volumes, 604 books were published from 1900 to the present, 207 published from 1800-1899; and 21 published from 1749 -1799. To date, 338 of the texts have been determined to have an aggregate value of $89,110. Based upon known values, the calculated total theft loss amount is approximately $220,000. Damage to existing volumes where certain pages were removed by a razor or similar device has not yet been determined.”

Breaking the public trust

Yes, there is a difference between a priceless historical artifact and a DVD, but the damage both these thieves inflicted is similar. They forcibly removed a public resource that’s free to all; whether it’s a historical map for use by scholars or a popular book or DVD. And for what? To make money.

What a disgusting, selfish act. Libraries are a sacred space. Anyone can go to a library and have access to hundreds of books and historical artifacts. Even local libraries typically have important local historical records.

The impact of such thefts is devastating. It’s not just stealing from one person or institution but literally hundreds of people, who will now never be able to look at a certain map or document.

Thankfully, due to some sharp thinking both men were caught before they inflicted even more damage.

More reading:

Great Falls man pleads guilty to stealing rare library books

Librarians helped detectives sniff out man who robbed 109 libraries and vandalized thousands of precious volumes

Library book bandit gets 10 years in prison

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