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On the theft of books

Amidst the constant presence in the news of library scanning projects and lawsuits for copyright infringement, Matthew Battles, an editor of the Harvard Library Bulletin, reiterates in an article for The Boston Globe the importance of books as artefacts, as objects worth more than the information they contain.

And what could show the value of books more than the desire to illegally possess or destroy them? Telling the stories of book thieves — of Harvard graduate student Joel Clifton Williams, found guilty of stealing 2,000 library books in 1932, and his modern counterpart, Stephen Blumberg, who stole a whopping 20,000 books by 1990 — and citing the historical theft and destruction of books in times of political upheaval, Battles concludes that, antiquities trafficking notwithstanding, book theft stems from the value placed on tactile representations of the past. He writes, “[Old] books offer us a sense of direct access to the past…. With their weight in our hands and their scent in our nostrils, we reflect not only on the stories they tell … but on the printers and artists who made them, and the readers who came before us.”

Related links:
Click here for Matthew Battles’ piece in The Boston Globe