Legends
Narrative

The Doheny Library Book Thief

Information about the Informant

My informant is a librarian working in Special Collections at USC’s Doheny Library. She first told me this story as an example of real security breaches that have occurred at Doheny Library. This is her second telling of the story to me.

Transcript

“So, I don’t know the dates exactly, but I think it was the 1990s. There was a guy Blumberg, and I don’t even remember his first name. I was gonna look it up, but you told me not to. Um, and I had heard of this guy, probably in library school, and then when I came to USC, I was on a security task force, talking about security of rare books and materials, and they kept mentioning, ‘Blumberg,’ and how there was a major theft in the 1990s from some USC Special Collections and Rare Books. Uh, and so, I heard that he–so this guy Blumberg, he was a totally obsessive collector. He collected not just books, but vintage doorknobs and all sorts of things, but my story’s mostly about the books, so in the 90s, he successfully stole millions of dollars worth of rare books from major institutions all over the country. And he would really do his homework, so I know at USC, I learned that he scoped us out for…I don’t even know how long, but he had been spotted in weird places, looking for how our security probably had any kind of holes. And then he ended up shimmying up the dumbwaiter system, which was used to reshelve books between floors in the stacks, and it had been deactivated. He shimmied up the dumbwaiter system, and that’s how he gained access to our closed stacks. And he stole a bunch of rare books, and he kept them in his warehouse. And when he was arrested, and he was sent to jail, when he was arrested, they found a warehouse which is–I think it was his home, but it was full of rare books. They were everywhere; they were in the bathroom, they were in the kitchen, they were just stacked up everywhere. And these were really expensive acquisitions from major institutions. And he had removed a lot of the…sort of…things we do to identify the books, so any kind of book stamp that we might have used or an embossing system. We try to do all these different things to identify the books as ours in case they are stolen. He removed all of those, so when the police were trying to sort of divvy out what books were whose, we couldn’t get all of our books back. So I think, we heard [other Special Collections staff member] say the other day that somebody from USC had to fly to the middle of the country and say, like–Indiana, maybe? I’m not sure. And try to identify all of the USC books that had been stolen. And we were only success–I–[Special Collections staff member] said about a third, um, she’s the [redacted for confidentiality purposes], she said we got about a third of the books back, but I don’t know the actual number.”

Analysis

As the story was originally told to me when I was discussing (as a student worker in Special Collections) the tight security that guarded that section of the library, there is the implicit warning that 1. the security precautions were there for a good reason and that 2. every worker in Special Collections must also be on the lookout for strange people in the restricted area. In fact, my informant told me after telling her story that she hears about people being in the Special Collections stacks that shouldn’t be there, and though they are usually students who have gotten off on the wrong floor because of an elevator issue, whenever she hears about such incidents, she always wonders if it’s yet another book thief or even Blumberg himself. Most of the staff members that work in Special Collections today were not working there during the 1990s when Blumberg struck. (Some were working in Doheny Library, but not in Special Collections.) But it’s a story that all of them know, usually through word of mouth. I suspect it is circulated amongst the Special Collections workers usually for the purpose of making them more security-conscious, but it’s also gained somewhat of a legendary status.

To my informant, the strange part of the story for her was voiced by(she read this in a book after hearing the story) a member of the Mafia who went to visit Blumberg in jail, and asked him, “Why books?” It’s quite possibly the question on everyone’s mind after hearing that Blumberg stole books and then simply kept them in a warehouse. He never tried to sell the books. He sincerely believed that he could take better care of the books than the libraries he stole them from could. My informant saw the irony in mocking him for this belief as this is exactly what libraries do. They procure books from various places and keep them in their own housing because they believe they can take care of the books.

But another aspect of Blumberg’s belief comes into play when the story is circulated amongst the library staff. He believed that he could take care of the books better than anyone else could and yet, from the story my informant told me, it sounds like the books were kept in abysmal and definitely not book-safe conditions. They were stacked up everywhere, in the bathroom, in the kitchen. I believe that my informant’s specific mention of these two locations reveals a deeper fear that this story induces in specifically library staff. As any person trained in the basics of book preservation knows, the most dangerous source of damage for books is water, with heat/fire being a close second. The idea that Blumberg was storing these books in his bathroom, where they could be exposed to water easily, and in the kitchen, where, even worse, they could be exposed to both water and heat easily, is a librarian’s nightmare. This is what makes Blumberg into a dangerous figure for those working in libraries instead of merely a, frankly, amusing eccentric. My informant speculated that Blumberg had to have had some sort of mental disorder for him to have done what he did and to think that he could take care of the books when he clearly had no idea what he was doing. For a staff member of Special Collections, the horror of Blumberg’s actions could very well serve to turn him into a figure of legend, a book thief whom library security cannot stop and who could unwittingly destroy centuries worth of rare books by making away with them.

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