The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 15, Number 7
Nov 1991

Stephen Blumberg and His Stolen Books

An episode in the history of large-scale rare book thefts drew to a close July 31 with the sentencing of Stephen C. Blumberg to five years I I months in prison, with a $200,000 fine.' He had been tried six months earlier and found guilty on four counts of possessing and transporting stolen property-more than 20,000 rare books and 10,000 manuscripts from 140 or more universities in 45 states and Canada. (One report said they were taken from 327 libraries and museums.)2 Their value has been placed at about $20 million, making this the largest theft of rare books in the country.

Like many book thieves, Blumberg was also a book lover. According to Kenny Rhodes, a former associate turned FBI informant in 1989, "It was his habit to read constantly through the night, cat-napping, waking, reading, dozing, waking, reading again, never fully sleeping.113 He did not sell any of the books, but stored them neatly in his 17-room home in Ottumwa, Iowa, and in stashes elsewhere. His ambition, according to Rhodes, was to become the greatest rare book thief of the century, even greater than the infamous David Shim, whose career was interrupted by arrest in 1980.

Blumberg has been described as reclusive and antisocial, with a history of schizophrenia, but calculating and sophisticated. Documents in Blumberg's possession at the time of his 1988 arrest included a listing of university special collections, floor plans of two buildings, and newspaper clippings about the holdings of various libraries.4 Rhodes, the former associate, said Blumberg was an expert locksmith, who would case the library during the day and return at night for the books.

His police record shows an arrest in 1974 for possession of books from four states in the Great Plains, as well as many arrests for minor burglaries and trespassing. In 1987, the FBI was alerted by librarians at the University of Oregon to a series of book thefts there. About the same time, he was ushered out of the UCLA library as an intruder. His 1988 arrest was at the University of California, Riverside, after he was discovered in a secured area there. Apparently he skipped bail (the article says "fled"), and lay low for two years, which caused the FBI to drop the case temporarily.

Earlier in 1988, a campus police officer at Washington State University began carrying out his own investigation. At first Sergeant Huntsberry was concerned only with books missing from his own campus library, but he sent out alerts (one of which made possible the 1988 arrest). He rightly suspected that the person apprehended at UCLA and Riverside was the thief who had visited his own library. Fingerprints taken at the time of the 1988 arrest helped him piece together Blumberg's complete criminal record, which he sent to the FBI. Throughout the investigation, however, the FBI seems to have been unaware of Huntsberry's work. The Society of American Archivists and the Association of College and Research Libraries were more appreciative. They issued him a commendation for his role in cracking the case.

In 1989, Kenny Rhodes went on the FBI payroll as an informant and things began to move. A search warrant was obtained and Blumberg was arrested in 1990. He was tried in January 1991 and sentenced in July at a separate trial. If he is not released earlier for good behavior or other reasons, he should be out of circulation till mid- 1997. What happens after that may depend on whether adequate security measures have been adopted in the rare book and manuscript collections he loves to visit.

The FBI packed up the books and manuscripts in March 1990, mixing up a few manuscripts in the process. (The narrative by Fraser Cocks does not say where they were taken to after removal from the Ottumwa house.) Then began the job of finding out which libraries they came from and getting them back to their owners. Presumably the items had to be cataloged first, at least minimally, so that a list could be issued. Among the rare book people asked to help with this job was Sidney Huttner (AN August 1990, p. 79). Libraries were slow to claim their missing books, and many did not even know any were missing. A year later OCLC listed the 19,000 books that were used as evidence in the trial on a special online database called The Book Return, searchable by holding symbol. AR claims were screened by the FBI. The database was discontinued October 1, and the FBI set October 18 as the deadline for claiming materials.

OCLC produced a video on the case, called "The Omaha Project: A Rare Book Adventure," which it sent out with its annual report, not intending to put it on the market. It is available on interlibrary loan from any of the 350 libraries that hold it, though, and from OCLC without charge while supplies last. Write a letter to OCLC, Omaha Project, Mail Code 204, 6565 Frantz Rd., Dublin, OH 43017-3395.


1. OCLC Newsletter, July/Aug. 199 1, p. 10

2. APPCG Newsletter, Sept. 1991, p. 15

3. Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 27, 1991, p. A3, "How a Campus Police Sergeant Nailed a Library Thief Extraordinaire," by Peter Monaghan

4. "Witness for the Prosecution: The Trial of Stephen Cary Blumberg," by Fraser Cocks. SAA Newsletter, July 1991, p. 16-17,22-23

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