Monday, June 14, 2004

Stephen Carrie Blumberg: book thief extraordinaire

From 'Gods Becoming Men' by Olga Tobreluts

More on the above at the end: I thought it was colourful but it wasn’t what I immediately wanted to write about here.

I want to write about this. Grand Theft Biblio.

It finished, years afterwards, with doorknobs. Stephen Blumberg, and his associate Steven Worden (apt, really) were found in a house — which was then in possession of a bank — having stolen a rather impressive amount of doorknobs. Blumberg’s theft of a vast amount of rare manuscripts and books from libraries across the nation was only remembered later. And he’d previously been sentenced for that, erm, offence.

At 2 a.m. on March 20, 1990, police in the small town of Ottumwa, Iowa ended the career of a man who is arguably the world’s most notorious bibliomaniac. With his arrest that night, Stephen Carrie Blumberg said goodbye for the last time to the library he had spent twenty years amassing. In that time he had gathered books from forty–five states, the District of Columbia, and two Canadian provinces. The value of his collection has been estimated conservatively at seven million dollars. Blumberg’s library, like all good collections, had a unifying theme; every one of his 23,600 books had been stolen.

Blumberg was allowed to continue his 1990s bookish spree because historical libraries, on discovering a theft, would not release information or co–operate with police for fear of advertising their lack of security – and for fear of ridicule.

Blumberg stole books because he loved them. There was not a thought of selling them on — no: they were far too precious for that, and far too deserving of a caring, careful owner. He is significant, Jon Wilson writes, to anyone with an interest in understanding bibliophiles because his obsession with books grew out of an understandable passion for them. Only in his extreme and criminal actions did he cross the line from book love to book madness. In Blumberg we see the characteristics of a true bibliophile, magnified by a madness that was not original with him. Blumberg is only a recent example of a collector whose book love has turned into book madness.

The Museum Security Network’s Book Thefts page muses:

He takes some understanding. How does one reconcile an apparently genuine appreciation for a 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle bound in ivory calfskin and a slovenliness so pronounced that the wife of an acquaintance felt she had to Lysol the chair he had sat in whenever he stopped by? He barely finished high school. He never married. He had a long history of mental illness. He was nomadic, driving around the country in an old Cadillac or truck, stealing books, endless books, books he selected with care for his collection. But he was not above common thievery. Often, with henchmen, he would steal antiques and sell them. He came from a well-off family and had a private income of $72,000 annually, but now and then he needed extra money. He never sold his books. He said he would return them one day.

I won’t rehearse the shadowy shenanigans to which Blumberg must have been driven in his quest to liberate these precious paper parcels from their academic slumber. It is easy — as Miles Harvey explains in his positively stellar, compulsive book The Island of Lost Maps — to remove an individual page from a rare book. Even when you are under the proboscis of a particularly hawk–eyed librarian in a million–dollar facility with security guards.

(I have to interrupt here. You know that book reference above? The American Society of Archivists, bless it, is awfully sniffy. “Of far less relevance is Harvey’s preoccupation with his own psychological motivations for writing The Island of Lost Maps,” it positively declares. “These ruminations occur too frequently and belong in a diary and not this book.” What nonsense. The man’s infectious enthusiasm shines through and is a delight. Anyway. Book theft.) —

It is less easy to remove an entire book. It is positively difficult to repeat this feat, again and again, until one has amassed one’s own illicit library. And yet Blumberg succeeded.

I know I said I wouldn’t go into his methods. But I can’t help wondering: how does a man, looking like your usual library–rat, manage to order up a priceless manuscript or map from the stacks and then just disappear with it? He is obviously the living incarnation of every film noir trenchcoat that has ever… been projected.

Present–day librarians — and not just universities — still worry:

Not having to erase books my last few minutes, I meander over to the bulletin board. A new posting about a convicted library thief is hanging front center. The full–page warning has two photos of Stephen Carrie Blumberg, a full description of height, weight, hair color, and an account of events leading up to his jail time and recent release on probation. The All Points Bulletin sent out warnings to all libraries and bookstores to look for this felon. Blumberg was convicted in 1990 of “interstate transportation and possession of 19 tons of rare books and manuscripts valued at approximately $20,000,000. He was sentenced to 71 months imprisonment and 36 months parole” (APB, 1996). Blumberg was ordered by the courts to notify his parole officer before visiting any bookstore or library and is supposed to identify himself by name to staff at these locations. “Luckily the students at UI are not ‘professional thieves’ as this man appears to be,” I think to myself. Interrupting my daydream about the library thief, the computer lab monitor hollers at me, “That’s everybody,” as he exits the library. Whew...

PNLA Quarterly: Pacific Northwest Library Association, 76:2 Winter ’93 [PDF].

Plucky librarians, and The Law, do have some recourse to safeguards, however. In 1996, our tender, bookloving Stephen was required by a Judge to identify himself on entering any library or bookstore. In the UK ths order would be important because it is hardly ever imposed — except on juveniles who have repeatedly robbed a shop, or on paedophiles who have frequented a neighbourhood. The fact that the innocents at risk are books and the predator a bibliophile kleptomaniac shows the depth of concern to which a Judgely breast may be stirred in the States.

And here are some more interesting things: More stealing, this time of subway trains. More maps – this time by artistsMillbank Pier in London… Travel (of a kind, actually standing still) at airports… and more travel (except this time underground, in the city of New Yorkan index of –ians and –ites from The Morning NewsGods Becoming Men: Olympic figures in Athens this summer… that’s about it for now.


Anonymous said...

I lived one block away when the Feds came into his house, and took the books back.......I truly admired the man......SCB.......because I love rare old books myself!!!!

Anonymous said...

what is he doing now I wonder....