Don’t let readers photograph rare books – let thieves steal them instead

An interesting story in the Guardian a few days ago highlights the criminal foolishness of the British Library policies.  These prohibit legitimate readers from photographing pages. 

A Cambridge graduate who stole more than £1m worth of rare books during his career as a professional book thief was today found guilty of stealing £40,000’s worth of books from a celebrated library.

William Jacques, nicknamed “Tome Raider” after stealing hundreds of rare books in the late 1990s, drew up a “thief’s shopping list”, targeting the most expensive books that he could access.

He used a false name to sign in to the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley library in London before hiding valuable books under his tweed jacket, Southwark Crown Court was told.

Detective Constable Paul Howitt said Jacques, the son of a farmer from Selby, North Yorkshire, was an “extremely arrogant man, a very greedy man who was obsessed by money” and was “responsible for the biggest ever raid of our leading libraries”.

The Cambridge graduate began selling stolen books at auction houses in the late 90s. The haul that led to his previous conviction, some 500 rare antiquarian books and pamphlets from the British Library, Cambridge University Library and the London Library, was one of the biggest of its kind in British legal history, and many of the works were damaged in an attempt to disguise their origins.

Jacques was jailed for four years in May 2002 by a judge at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court for 21 counts of theft. He now faces a similar time in jail after his most recent offences.

Libraries cannot be secure unless they stop being libraries and turn into vaults.  It is of the highest importance to record the holdings of all our libraries, and especially of unique items.  Any long-established collection contains items that once belonged elsewhere.  Indeed medieval manuscripts travel more widely than all but a few of us!  They flit around like bumble-bees.

Any library that believes that preserving the collection means preventing photography is criminally negligent.  Instead it should manage such a process.


6 thoughts on “Don’t let readers photograph rare books – let thieves steal them instead

  1. I agree with you, virtually any book out of copyright ought to be scanned (or photographed) and placed in a vault, but two points:
    1. Ad hoc photography of individual books by individuals is pointless, photographing (or scanning) needs to be done as part of a planned program of preservation and distribution, otherwise who apart from the individual and a small circle of associates who benefits?
    2. Some of the older items need to be accessible to a very limited number of people even after they have gone to the vaults because they contain valuable information apart from their texts. For example, watermarks in the paper, the method of binding, composition of the ink. These items are likely to be well under 1% of most collections.


  2. I agree about your second point.

    As for #1, I don’t agree. If it isn’t done by individuals it will not be done. The days of centralised funded efforts are probably behind us. But what libraries should do is retain copies of all photos and put them online — crowd source whatever does get taken, in other words.

  3. If I understand what you are saying is that I go to the library, copy the items I need for my own research, duplicate the data, and give the duplicate to the library, who adds my collection of photographs to your collection of photographs and to the collections of hundreds of other individuals, like one big jigsaw puzzle.

    Sounds OK – except:
    1. If I copy in one format, and you copy in another format, and other people copy in yet other formats, and we all use different resolutions, and some people copy every part of a book (cover, flyleafs, illustrations, advertising in the back) while other people only copy what they see as the key part of the text – then we end up will a host of current and future problems.
    2. If I copy items that are important to my research, and you copy items that are important to your research, then the library ends up with some items copied multiple times and most items never copied at all. This will be especially true of journals. I get increadibly annoyed when I go to online collections of journals only to find that most BUT NOT ALL volumes have been copied, and I fear many librarians, in seeing that a journal is online, will toss out their physical copies on the assumption that the journal is now online, so who needs the physical copies.
    3. Copying the items is only the first stage in preservation and access – but who is going to make adequated catalogue records for all the downloaded images? Lots of libraries are dumbing down, run by a managerial class who are clueless about issues concerning online images, and they are not likely to spend money on quality catalogue records. As much as I like, some of the records are hard to find, and when you do find them, the attached book or journal is the wrong book or journal (wrong edition, wrong volume)
    4. The results of our efforts might be attached to one library website, but there needs to be a means by which anybody can find the results of our efforts without first having to search hundreds of websites.

    Individuals cannot address the big problems, but if larger groups or organisations address these problems then individuals can volunteer their expertise and time within the larger framework.

    At the same time, the results must be duplicated and stored at multiple locations to avoid issues like technical failures, censorship, and commercialisation.


  4. Vast amounts of stuff are offline, tho, and staying offline. This has been so for 13 years now. And it’s staying offline, not because people don’t want to put it online, but because institutions are preventing copying. This is bad.

    So I think I come at this from a different perspective. Re: the issues above: imagine that the library is burned. Now which do we prefer? That we have a mess of photographs of this and that? Or nothing? Surely we prefer the former?

    You made this interesting point: “I get increadibly annoyed when I go to online collections of journals only to find that most BUT NOT ALL volumes have been copied, and I fear many librarians, in seeing that a journal is online, will toss out their physical copies on the assumption that the journal is now online, so who needs the physical copies.” I agree entirely here.

    This is why I agree with some of the points you make; they are all valid going forward, as part of a strategy. But … who pays? Once we shut out the ordinary man with a camera, who pays to do the Rolls Royce solution? No-one, I think. So… we need to find a way to do it with the readers.

    This is why I agree about a framework. It’s all about imagination. Make it easy, make it fun, and people will be happy to contribute. How else did Wikipedia come into being?

    Surely we mustn’t ban people taking photos, merely because we don’t see how it will advance a strategy which is not being advanced anyway, or because we don’t like the idea of someone photographing stuff in different formats (!). Let people do what they want. But as material piles up, the need for the strategy will increase and become evident, and become, moreover, justifiable to funding bodies.

  5. It’s embarrassing if you have an Irish Civil War or something, and one of your major mss storehouses gets burned up.

    And it’s not as if Cambridge and Oxford haven’t been major war targets in the past, or as if they never have students with Causes who flirt with destructive means of change. Librarians are supposed to be paranoid in a way that keeps knowledge safe by spreading knowledge, not in a way that puts all the eggs in one basket.

  6. They tend to see readers as the main risk. Considering that they have to deal with students, there is sense in this. But it does ignore the longer-term risk.

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