You are here

A Crime for the (Library) Books

Books@Baker kickoff event on The Map Thief, authored by a Baker Library staff member.


September 23, 2014—Can any single object create more more anxiety for librarians than the simple X-Acto knife? At the inaugural Books@Baker event, Michael Blanding, author of The Map Thief and Baker Library staff member, discussed the damage wrought by a rare map dealer and his X-Acto knife.

Between 1998 and 2005, E. Forbes Smiley III pilfered nearly 100 maps from collections at the Boston Public Library, New York Public Library, British Library, Newberry Library, Harvard and Yale, netting him over $3 million.

Smiley’s crime spree began to unravel in 2005, when a canny librarian at Yale spotted an X-Acto knife on the floor near Smiley. He ultimately admitted to the thefts and served time in prison for theft of cultural heritage.

As a result of Smiley’s crimes, many rare book collections changed their security and cataloging practices as well as their access policies and digitization priorities. “It’s the nature of providing access to materials,” said Blanding. “But if you cut off access, it’s anathema to the mission of the library.”

Blanding said his most interesting finding was libraries’ willingness to critique and change their policies. “The libraries that were victims had every reason not to talk to me, and yet I found that they were so open and transparent—they opened up their files and archives and gave me this necessary fodder that I needed to tell the story. I think it’s because librarians have this longer view of stories and of books; they saw that this book would be sitting on a library shelf long after any of us have ceased to exist, and they wanted to bring that complex story to history accurately.”

“This story comes from our own backyard,” said Deb Wallace, executive director of Knowledge and Library Services at Baker Library at Harvard Business School. “Michael’s done an incredible job pulling together the many phases of the investigation as well as the whole world of mapmaking and our history through maps.”

Look out for details for the next Books@Baker event on the Library calendar.