April 5, 2018

The Carnegie Library was warned about the security of its books, not too long before its books were stolen


It’s becoming clearer why the spokesperson for the Carnegie Library has been sort of tight-lipped about the whole stolen-books thing.

As we reported just two weeks ago, the Oliver Room at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library—where most of the library’s rare books and maps are stored—was burgled in April 2017, to the tune more than $5 million. Now, Marylynne Pitz at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (no confirmation on whether being named Pitz lands you an automatic job at that newspaper) is back on the story, reporting that, oops, it looks like the Carnegie Library was warned to move their rare books collection … back in 1991.

Donnis de Camp and Marc Selvaggio appraised the collection in the Oliver Room from May to November of 1991. Their recommendation? Get those rare and important documents out of the library and into research libraries at either the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University, where tighter security and better preservation methods would keep them safe.

The appraisers also suggested that the library sell some of its rare holdings, especially those that had duplicates readily available nearby. “Without diminishing the cultural resources [of the area], duplicates could be deaccessioned and sold for resources that could be applied to preservation needs of the rest of the collection,” the report said. De Camp and Selvaggio, who owned the nearby Schoyer’s Books at the time, also noted significant fluctuations in temperature and humidity within the Oliver Room. Their 232-page appraisal, acquired by the Post-Gazette, concluded with the recommendation to move the rare books:

The university libraries are already set up for adequate security, climate control, and control of patron use, in ways that the Carnegie has not fully implemented.

Pitz reached out to the former director of the University of Pittsburgh’s library system, Rush G. Miller, who said that in the twenty years of his tenure no one from the Carnegie Library had ever approached him or his staff about transferring rare items. Shocker. “The Carnegie Library never really cooperated with us very much,” he said, adding that they had even “refused to allow us to digitize their material.”

As a gentle reminder, 173 books have been missing for at least a year — and that’s not counting the nearly 600 maps and 3,200 plates that were cut out of an additional 130 books.

Maybe the thief has a really great dehumidifier?


UPDATE: This piece was originally published under the headline “‘If only someone had warned us!,’ says the Carnegie Library, robbed after ignoring warnings.” We meant the title as a joke, of course, but after receiving a respectful request from Library staff, we’ve changed it. To be clear, we are unaware of any reporting that the Carnegie claimed not to have been warned about possible security issues, and we regret the implication.


Susan Rella is the Director of Production at Melville House, and a former bookseller.