Rare books and maps, theft, and… Well, that’s most of it. But it’s enough. How did $8M of rare books and maps disappear from the Carnegie Library over 25 years? I somehow picture the thief to be like the cat burglar from that episode of the Simpsons.
Like nuclear power plants and sensitive computer networks, the safest rare book collections are protected by what is known as “defense in depth”—a series of small, overlapping measures designed to thwart a thief who might be able to overcome a single deterrent. The Oliver Room, home to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s rare books and archives, was something close to the platonic ideal of this concept. Greg Priore, manager of the room starting in 1992, designed it that way.
The room has a single point of entry, and only a few people had keys to it. When anyone, employee or patron, entered the collection, Priore wanted to know. The room had limited daytime hours, and all guests were required to sign in and leave personal items, like jackets and bags, in a locker outside. Activity in the room was under constant camera surveillance.
In addition, the Oliver Room had Priore himself. His desk sat at a spot that commanded the room and the table where patrons worked. When a patron returned a book, he checked that it was still intact. Security for special collections simply does not get much better than that of the Oliver Room.
In the spring of 2017, then, the library’s administration was surprised to find out that many of the room’s holdings were gone. It wasn’t just that a few items were missing. It was the most extensive theft from an American library in at least a century, the value of the stolen objects estimated to be $8 million.