The opportunity is almost irresistible, if one has no scruples:
* valuable items that anyone can ask to handle;
* no physical barrier to leaving, even if the sensor system at the doors sounds an alarm;
* a full bag of beautiful old books;
* perfect anonymity as you dismember and sell them over the Internet.
In other words, thousands of dollars profit for a few minutes of work.
Recent changes in the market have made library book theft a feasible and profitable profession for more people. Anyone might expect that an original manuscript of a famous writer or a 17th-century tome would be valuable. The surprise is to learn that some fairly common library materials, not thought to be particularly old or rare, are bringing astonishing prices at used bookstores and Internet auctions. In September 2003, for example, an 1884 edition of Mitchell's New General Atlas was offered for sale for $1,499.95, the 1972 West Point Atlas of American Wars for $1,375.95, and a 1967 reproduction of Johan Blaeu's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum for $2,500.
The particular problem for librarians, however, is not just protecting their books per se, but also their individual pages. Clean, bright, unmarked pages from many 19th-century atlases can sell for anywhere between $35 and $1,000 apiece.
The road to riches
When one thinks of valuable items that may be found in a library's open stacks, perhaps first editions of famous novels come to mind. But a circulating book's commercial value is essentially destroyed by the way it is used in libraries. The dust jacket is either discarded or damaged almost immediately. The inside covers are property-stamped and a call number label is affixed. As the years go by, it is routinely bound in practical buckram. After decades of regular use, the tired thing finally falls apart and is replaced with a modern printing. Such passive and routine degeneration is the library's ally in theft protection.
Atlases lead a different life. Purchased on a relatively regular schedule, they are considered essential material for every library. For the 10 years or so a particular atlas is considered a contemporary item, it receives frequent and fairly hard use in the reference area. Some 15-20 years after publication, librarians tend to view an atlas as dated and put it out to pasture in some sort of "old reference" or even oversized circulating stacks, where it is kept for decades. Not recognized as a particularly valuable item, it stays there until someone--librarian or thief--discovers its true value.
A thief has three choices for selling, a library atlas: as-is, accepting the reduced price that library marks bring; removing library marks through bleaching or archival-quality repair that can be passed off as preservation; or selling the pages individually. Obviously, the third choice requires the least work while bringing an excellent return.
An added benefit of selling atlases page-by-page is that the thief can sell directly to the consumer at flea markets and at Internet auctions. A whole book with its big price tag is more likely to be purchased by a serious collector or a dealer who is much more inclined to act on a suspicion that an item may be stolen. A sin almost equal to theft among dealers and collectors is to misrepresent the condition of an item for sale. In the used-book world, an ex-library copy, or "Xlib," is a severe strike against its value and must be divulged to the buyer. The situation is similar to a used-car dealer divulging whether a vehicle has ever been involved in an accident: Someone caught passing library books as private copies can lose all credibility among other dealers.
We should not assume, though, that all used atlases on the market are hot. The practice of selling legitimately withdrawn library items is prevalent and is certainly acceptable. Similarly, the practice of disbinding atlases and selling them by the page has been going on for centuries. …