Tag Archives: work

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.


“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.”


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.

Name Tag Designs at the Lyon Center

At the USC Lyon center, in the membership services area, there is a large metal cabinet, on which, are the name tags of all the employees. Usually, they are organized into some sort of design, which seems to change on a semi-weekly basis. My informant is an Employee at the Lyon center, and I asked him about this:

Can you tell me about the tradition of name tags making pictures at the Lyon Center?

Sure. So, uh, a lot of times we get board, here at the Lyon center, and there happen to be a lot of name tags and a large magnetic surface so to pass the time people will make patterns such as butterflies, hearts or even words, that say, like, “fight on” or like, “have fun” or “good luck,” etc.

The idea that student employees at the Lyon center make designs out of their name tags is interesting inasmuch as it shows a general propensity to create some sort of art, even if only out of boredom, and also the fact that school spirit seems to show through this tradition with such phrases as “fight on,” USC’s motto. It is also notable that most employees seem to take part in this design tradition, rather than a select few, as the design changes almost daily.

“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than be good.”

Saying described verbatim by informant and his wife:

“We use that a lot at work, in surgery, in medicine. And there are there are times when (pause) no matter how good a surgeon you are the result is not what you hope it would be, the patient doesn’t do as well. You can do the same operation the same way, you know, the same way on ten people but you can get you know 3 or 4 different results and so. It’s not to belittle anybody’s effort or ability but sometimes it just matters you know how the cards are dealt. And uh an example, another example would be: we take call at night, you work all night. Some nights a guy will be, won’t have any emergency surgery to do and he’ll be able to sleep all night and there are other nights where the guy is up All night uh through no fault of his own just happened to be a night where a lot of people showed up in the emergency room. So we always look at each other and we say ‘Well, it’s better to be lucky than good’ cuz no matter how good a surgeon you are you’d rather be lucky and not be working all night. You’d rather be the lucky one that gets to sleep.

I don’t think that phrase is unique to surgeons or in the medical world.

(wife’s interjection speaking quickly and emphatically: You’ve been saying that since the day I met you. You didn’t say that as a surgeon. You said that, when I met you you were saying that. Because you said you were good all the time and you had no luck. You used to say that all the time, I’d say like you know “You’re so good,” and he was like “Yeah, well sometimes its better to be lucky than be good.” And I was like, “Well what do you mean by that?” You’re like “You know I have no luck” Kay, not for nothing, you’re a pretty lucky guy, you work really hard but some people work really hard and they don’t get places, but that’s for another day)

(In answer) Well, there’s also the expression that you make your own luck, so. But I don’t, I didn’t realize that I said that so often but I don’t think the phrase is unique to me. I think I heard it from someone else.

(wife: No, of course not. But it obviously spoke to you. Right?)

I always think of my brother P. (P is an name substitute to keep confidentiality) cuz my brother P. was kind of an imp of a boy, always in trouble, but he was always incredibly lucky. I mean he he

(wife speaking as he spoke: The luck of the Irish!)

never got caught by the cops, he uh um he did very well playing cards um always had luck with cards (laughing)

(wife: Always had incredible luck with women)

Yeah well, he was very handsome so he didn’t have to be lucky

(wife disagreeing: Uhhh, I’m sorry)

but but uh certainly, Certainly when I’d look around at how hard I was working at school and he was still pullin good grades uh, usually he was lucky he had a good teacher or he had a good friend.

(wife’s question: Did he get good grades?)

He got okay grades, much better than he deserved (laughing) so.”

Obviously this proverb applies to numerous situations. For my informant, it held truth in both his professional and personal lives. With a high-stress high-stakes job as a general surgeon, the subjective reality of treating patients sometimes can only be justified and understood with the concept of luck. Since their work holds great consequence to people’s lives, when things don’t work as they “are supposed to” it can be a heavy blow to both their conscience and confidence. Being a good surgeon and doing things exactly as they are supposed to isn’t always enough to save someone, and that can understandably be a difficult concept to wrap their heads around. Also, the absurdly difficult “On Call” shift in the Emergency Room overnight takes a lot out of surgeons physically and mentally. Having the luck to sleep through the night is often favorable to performing surgery all night; even though you may be a good surgeon and can help people, there’s luck in the sense that people aren’t sick and don’t need help, which in turn is lucky for surgeons who can then get some sleep. So far as my informant’s personal life, he sees his impish younger brother as having luck in the sense that things easily work in his favor. Naturally, a man who by both his wife’s and his own description is a “good,” hardworking person, it’s easy to view the luck and ease his bad-boy brother always had as both irritating and enviable. Good for him that he can smile and laugh about it. In this manner, the proverb is almost a calming truth; not everything is within your power. That luck is an important concept to my informant whose family is a mix of Italian-American and Irish-American, among other things, isn’t so surprising.

Ernst & Young LLP Retirement Celebration

The informant worked as a CPA-Partner for Ernst & Young LLP and just recently retired in January. He had been working there for thirty-one years, since he graduated college in 1980.

The informant just recently retired at the beginning of January so I thought he would have some good Ernst & Young retirement folklore. He described to me the retirement party thrown by only the other Partners for a retiring Partner. These retirement parties always take place at the California Club in down town Los Angeles and only the Partners of the firm are allowed to attend. All the Partners gather at this party and honor the retiring Partner. Each Partner, if he or she wishes, says something about the retiree, something they really valued in him or appreciated from years of dedicated work. Almost everyone expresses how much they will miss the retiree, and how much he made an impact on the office. It is traditional to provide the retiree with a gift of some kind. The informant received a silver Tiffany serving platter. In return, the retiree usually provides those honoring him with a little token of some kind. My informant assembled a booklet of some of his photographs with inspirational messages on how to live a successful life. At the end of the evening, the retiree is toasted and gives a speech to the other Partners, thanking them for their hard work and support over the years. After this, the Partners slowly trickle out, congratulating the retiree as they depart. After the informant described the party, I followed up with some questions about this experience.

Me: After working at a company so long, what does this little retirement ritual mean to you?

Informant: It was uh, important to be recognized for my contributions to my fellow Partners.

Me: Does Ernst & Young LLP do this type of thing for everyone?

Informant: For all the retiring Partners there are variations of a type of recognition event. The gifts vary and there are some differences in the toasts depending on the particular person.

Me: Why do you remember this ceremony of sorts? Why do you like it?

Informant: Because all my friends were there, and they all had such nice, appreciative things to say. Ha ha, it’s nice to hear.

Me: Why does the company do this for each retiring Partner?

Terry: Because they want to maintain a good relationship with the retiring Partners because it could mean future business for the firm. And it’s a good chance to get all the Partners together from the office. When you celebrate success, it breeds success.

These retirement dinners seem to be an important way of celebrating many years of hard work. Essentially, I understood this little ritual to be about acknowledging all the effort an individual has put into their work and recognizing the fact that it has paid off. The dinners are a way of celebrating hard work, but also, when it’s someone like my informant who had worked there for thirty years, celebrating a type of life. It’s a gathering of people who aren’t just co-workers but friends. It’s a way to pleasantly shut the door on one time in a person’s life and open another new and exciting one.


“Once begun is half done.”

My mom told me this wise saying when I was young, and had trouble getting my chores done.  They always seemed like they took so long that I would just not do them until I had to be forcibly told. My mother explained to me that all chores are boring and tedious and the hardest part is getting started. In other words, once you’ve started a job you’ve nearly finished because the hardest part is getting over.