Libraries practice collection protection for rare books


In light of the recently discovered theft of more than 300 rare books and other materials from the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Oakland, Pitt’s library facilities have taken an extra look at their rare book security.

Those in charge of rare books and collections at the University Library System (ULS) and the Health Sciences Library System (HSLS) say the large crime nearby has not prompted any changes in their procedures for allowing public access to rare books, since Pitt is already following industry standards for these specially protected works. Nor, in their experience, have any thefts from University collections been reported.

But discovery of the Carnegie case “made us do serious introspection to make sure we were covering our bases,” said Edward Galloway, associate university librarian for Archives and Special Collections. “I’m sure everyone across the country was thinking the same thing. These are always wake-up calls when they happen.”

In July, Greg Priore, the Carnegie Library’s primary archivist and manager of the rare book room, was arrested and charged, along with Oakland bookstore owner John Schulman with stealing more than $8 million worth of rare publications, according to the Post-Gazette.

An affidavit alleges that Priore stole rare books and removed individual pages from others, then gave them to Schulman to sell. 

Keeping a close eye

Security has long been tight for Hillman’s rare book reading room, Galloway said: “You’re never browsing stacks.”

Nor are these materials ever sent on interlibrary loan or circulated; in fact, users must register to see materials from the collection and present an ID. Researchers can only view the materials in Hillman’s rare books reading room, which has long been monitored by security cameras and by the presence of at least two staff members. Backpacks are banned from the space.

“We’re following the national and international standards and doing everything we can to protect the University’s assets,” said Kornelia Tancheva, Hillman university librarian and ULS director. “We really do not want to divulge all of our special measures (for security). Everybody does the best that they can, but … if somebody is bent on stealing something, they will find a way. We are naturally very sympathetic to the situation our colleagues found themselves in (at Carnegie Library).”

At HSLS’s central facility, Falk Library of the Health Sciences in Scaife Hall, there are three levels of rare book security. More than 4,500 books published between 1851 and 1930, which require protection because of age and fragility, are behind a chain-link fence in their own room. Only HSLS staff can enter this space to retrieve materials, and patrons may use them only in the library.

Falk’s Ravitch Room, also known as the rare book reading room, houses 2,500 books published between 1800 and 1850, which are accessible only via key card by selected librarians and library directors. Staff supervise the use of these materials within the room only.

The Rodnan Room, which library staff have nicknamed “the vault,” includes all books published before 1800 and the most valuable books regardless of the publishing date — more than 2,200 volumes. This room is accessible only to library personnel, who must retrieve materials for patron use in the Ravitch Room.

“We took an extra look at our procedures,” said HSLS director Barbara Epstein, to make sure they were being followed when the Carnegie thefts became public. In fact, the library was already in the midst of an inventory, which necessitates that every book be opened, since identifying material is not placed on the usual spine tag. Damage to any volume — particularly things cut from them — would be immediately noticeable, she says.

“Nobody is ever alone in there,” she said. “We take the security of the rooms and the protection of the collection very seriously.”

Access remains crucial

Hillman Library is today designing a new space for a portion of its rare books and special collections, most of which are usually housed in the Archives Service Center in Point Breeze. The previous space at Hillman, down a side hall in the back of the building, was “cloistered,” said Jeffrey A. Wisniewski, the ULS director of communications and web services.

The new space under renovation on Hillman’s third floor will be “very prime real estate, very open, very accessible, because we don’t want these things to be hidden and dusty,” he said. This “complete reinvention” of the space will have more room for instruction, exhibition and on-site study of the materials.

About 70 classes per school year have used Hillman’s rare book reading room, Galloway said. It provides access not just to books but to collections of photographs, maps, personal papers and other types of material.

In total, the University has nearly 100,000 rare books, including compendiums focusing on everything from private presses and older textbooks to children’s literature and science fiction. It also has more than 1,200 archival and manuscript collections, concentrating on such things as American music or local industry.

“A fair number of non-Pitt people” use the archives as well, Galloway said, including a researcher from Oslo who flew here to view the jazz materials in the Erroll Garner archives, and local engineers looking at old maps for more clues to solve current flooding.

“We try to bring as many users to the unique materials as possible,” said Tancheva, by continuing to collect materials of likely value in the future. “In 10 years, they become the research material, and only we have collected it.”

In Falk Library, rare book users are not just health science program students. Several interdisciplinary programs, such as the history of architecture, look at the anatomical illustrations in old medical atlases because they are set in front of old castles, for instance, said Małgorzata “Gosia” Fort, Falk’s head of digital resources development and curator of rare books collection. Other volumes may be valuable as rare examples of old binding and printing methods — or even for the notes in the margins.

“There’s a lot you miss when you are just looking at the image of the old book (online),” Fort said.

“We’re pleased that people want to see them and want to use them,” said Epstein of Falk’s rare book collection. “It’s really a balance between providing access to these special materials and making sure they are handled and used properly.”



Marty Levine,, 412-758-4859