Over more than twenty years, Stephen Blumberg stole more than 23,000 rare books from 268 libraries, a collection that was estimated to be worth between five and twenty million dollars. According to William Moffett
, an expert in bibliokleptomania
, "in terms of the number of libraries raided and the number of volumes known to be stolen, Blumberg is the No. 1 thief of books in American history."
Due to his intelligent modus operandi
and to the fact that they were simply not expecting such a large-scale assault on their holdings, most of the libraries he stole from were not even aware of their losses until Blumberg was apprehended in 1990.
As a young man, Blumberg began collecting antique fixtures from condemned houses, particularly doorknobs and stained-glass windows, an interest that would soon grow into an obsession. A psychiatrist testified at his trial that he had started "to create his own Victorian world" in his apartment, but clearly the dream of a 'Victorian world' was not enough to satisfy his lust for antique objects. After his arrest, nearly fifty thousand doorknobs were found in his house, as well as dozens of old suitcases, stained-glass windows, Victrola record players, and thousands of 78 RPM records. He supposedly also collected antique underwear, which he would wear for weeks at a time.
Eventually, Blumberg began to steal books from various libraries he visited. He would crawl through ventilation ducts and elevator shafts, break in during the night, bypass alarms and security guards, do whatever it took to get the books he needed for his collection. Blumberg was not an indiscriminate thief; he kept a desiderata list in his head of the titles he was looking for and researched which libraries held them. One book he particularly wanted only had two copies in existence, one owned by a private collector. Blumberg and some accomplices spent some time trying to figure out how to break into the collector's house, but in the end the theft was never attempted. Blumberg insists that he never wanted to steal from a private owner, and that the plan was entirely the suggestion of several young men who worked with him. Nor did he try to sell any of the books he stole; he wanted them for himself and kept them all in his house in Iowa.
In 1980, Blumberg happened to steal the faculty ID card of Matthew McGue, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota. This was a big break for him, and he assumed the McGue persona when visiting many different academic libraries. Blumberg obtained a California driver's license in McGue's name, as well as several other faculty ID cards, and applied for reading privileges at libraries across the country. (Reading privileges which he extended rather beyond what was intended by the libraries, most likely.) McGue later testified at Blumberg's trial.
Late one night in April 1988, a custodian at the University of California, Riverside came across Blumberg in the locked special collections area. He identified himself as McGue, and the custodian brought him to the night supervisor of the library, Sharla Desens. Desens had recently received a bulletin warning of a possible thief using McGue's name, so she called the police. The police searched his bag and found burglary tools and information about the library and campus security policies, so they charged him with trespassing and possession of burglary tools. Blumberg was convicted of the two misdemeanors (under the name of McGue) and fined $1000, but was let go and was not seen again.
When he couldn't break into a library after hours, Blumberg would sometimes remove the library markings from a book he wanted (usually by licking the labels until they came off), put on fake ones from another library, and simply walk out with the book. A friend at the time said that he would often make himself sick from licking off the label glue. He would shave off the edges of pages and cut out others to remove library stamps, and put in his own stamps to fool security. When he was nearly caught at UC Riverside, he actually ate a rubber stamp. All of the books he stole eventually received the same treatment, so that when the collection was finally found it was very difficult to tell which books came from which libraries.
In 1989, Blumberg moved to Ottumwa, Iowa, and a friend of his, Kenneth J. Rhodes, moved in with him soon after. Rhodes had helped Blumberg on and off over the years, but once he moved in, Rhodes began collecting information on Blumberg's activities, which he later sold to the FBI. Rhodes received $56,000 for his information, and on March 20, 1990, the FBI arrested Stephen Blumberg at the Ottumwa house and seized the "collection".
At his trial, Blumberg pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His lawyers tried to claim that the collecting mania ran in his family, citing a great-grandfather who had collected over 2,000 used horse collars, among other things. The jury, however, did not accept this explanation, and convicted him on four counts of transporting stolen property. He was sentenced to six years in prison, and forbidden to enter any library.
Blumberg was released in 1995 after serving 4 1/2 years of his sentence, but he was convicted of burglary again in 1997, after being charged with stealing antique furnishings from a house in Des Moines, IA.
A Gentle Madness by Nicholas Basbanes, 1995
Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 10, 1998
Toronto Star, June 14, 1992
USA Today, March 22, 1990
Omaha World-Herald, October 15, 1995