Stealing from the Public: On the Carnegie Library’s Rare Books Theft

Back in April 2017, news broke that someone had stolen over 300 items from the rare books room at the main branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, ranging from a 17th century map of New York and New England to a first edition of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. The rare books room has been closed ever since the disclosure of the thefts, and the people responsible have not been identified—until, possibly, this past week.

As Paula Reed Ward reports in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, two people have emerged as prime suspects in the case:

The former archivist of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s rare book collection told investigators he conspired with the owner of an Oakland [a neighborhood in Pittsburgh] bookseller since the 1990s to steal and resell items taken from there.

Gregory Priore, who was terminated from the library on June 28, 2017, and John Schulman, who co-owns Caliban Book Shop, are under investigation for theft, receiving stolen property and criminal mischief, according to hundreds of pages of documents unsealed Thursday in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

Recent estimates place the monetary value of the stolen items at over 8,000,000 USD. The cultural cost of the theft is, of course, incalculable.

As someone who spent about four years living in the Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh while an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, this was a surprising and disheartening turn. I didn’t go to Caliban very often, even though it was about a five minute walk from my dorm—I am, shall we say, a tightwad—but I do have some fond book-related memories of the place: finding a cheapo paperback of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Tombs of Atuan, for instance, or discovering the work of Quebecois poet of Gatien Lapointe. And I’d get a faint feeling of civic pride whenever John Schulman would appear as an appraiser on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow.

Well, there goes that aura of positivity.

I suppose one might hope that a rare and used bookseller, while motivated by the bottom line, might share the library’s interest in making the literary past available to the public. Price is a significant barrier to access, certainly, but shops such as Caliban do provide the service of keeping what’s out-of-print and long-forgotten in circulation, something the likes of Barnes & Noble are less likely to do. But as this case would suggest, the books are merely the means to the end of profit, raw materials for the machine to churn through. How else to explain the allegations that Priore and Schulman cut maps and plates out of several books to sell separately? It’s the logic of the operation, it’s less like vandalism and more like processing.

I know attaching positive feelings to a profit-driven entity is somewhat foolish, as this case well illustrates, but to hear that this beloved institution was involved in some serious cultural theft—and that’s exactly what it is—has rather dampened my mood (and judging from the reaction of my friends from the Steel City, I’m not alone in this). Priore and Schulman took these items of historical and cultural significance, which belonged, however symbolically, to the people as a collective entity, and sold them off for purely private gain. More than the theft itself, it’s the public nature of the stolen goods that bothers me so.

I don’t really have a grander point beyond this. I’m just miffed.

If you’d like a thorough list of the items stolen from the Carnegie Library’s rare books room over the years, this earlier article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette will have you covered.

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