Libraries: Frequent Victims Of CrimeRACHEL ZOLL , Associated Press
Apr. 14, 1996 2:00 PM ET
BOSTON (AP) _ Temporary workers at Harvard's Widener Library aren't supposed to have unlimited access to its famed stacks. But Stephen L. Womack did, turning his $5-an-hour job into a gateway to the Widener's most valuable holdings and becoming ``the library slasher.''
Widener stole and destroyed more than 600 scholarly books before he was caught, and left notes threatening anyone who tried to stop him.
Womack, 42, testified in court that he was seeking revenge against authorities who had sentenced him to a state mental hospital, after unrelated convictions for malicious destruction and exposing himself.
Library security specialists say his case shows how little administrators do to protect their collections.
A background check would have shown Womack's previous convictions, but administrators often balk at conducting such searches for low-level employees and scholarly staff as well, said Steven Layne, a security consultant to the Smithsonian Institution.
``In one recent case I worked on, a volunteer showed immaculate credentials that were never verified,'' Layne said.
The volunteer was promoted to a full-time position in charge of a collection and looted books worth more than $1 million.
``When I ran a background check, I found out all of the credentials were phony,'' he said.
Staff and volunteers are responsible for about 70 percent of book theft in U.S. libraries, he said.
``It's all about greed,'' said Larry Shelley, acting chief of protective services at the Library of Congress.
``People tend to cut plates out of books on nature and sell them to antique dealers or interior decorators. Then there's the person who steals the entire book for a part of a personal collection,'' he said.
Library theft made headlines in the early 1990s, when FBI agents found more than 20,000 books worth millions of dollars in the Ottumwa, Iowa, home of Stephen Carrie Blumberg. Prosecutors said Blumberg stole the identity of a University of Minnesota professor to gain access to libraries in 45 states and Canada.
Blumberg's attorneys used an insanity defense.
``It's the only instance I can find for what amounts to criminal bibliomania,'' said Nicholas Basbanes, author of ``A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, And The Eternal Passion For Books.''
``It's laughable, but having attended the trial, it is not a frivolous defense. He had an obsession with the past and conceives of himself as a Victorian man. He thought of his collection as a resource library for studies in Victorian Americana,'' he said.
Blumberg was sentenced to 71 months in prison.
Layne said library crime often goes unreported by administrators who fear news of theft may discourage donations to the library.
But tough economic times have been forcing administrators to go public, said Mike Daly, chief of security at Queens Borough Public Library in New York.
``The book budgets are decreasing so they have to come forward now to stop it,'' Daly said.
When Womack was arrested, investigators found a kind of renegade reference room in his basement. He favored texts in Latin and Greek, and rare books on early Christianity in languages like Icelandic.
Womack was convicted, and on March 14 was sentenced to seven to 10 years in prison.
But even the threat of jail time may not be enough to stop the twisted bibliophile, as Womack's behavior indicated immediately after his arrest.
``He asked (an investigator), `If I go to jail, do you think they'll let me use the library there?''' said Harvard police Sgt. Kathleen Stanford. ``It was a dead-up serious question on his part.''