Reading like something from a Borges text, the New York Times has reported on a the theft of thousands of volumes from the Girolamini Library in Naples by the former director, Marino Massimo De Caro. In fact, De Caro quoted Borges’s Ficciones during his trial in what history may prove to be the very first defense by way of deconstruction, but that’s for another blog post.
The larger issue is the loss of cultural (and global) heritage that we see in this theft. The stolen texts include copies of Galileo, Machiavelli, Descartes, and much, much more. And, as the article observes, many of the volumes have been sold off to dealers from around the world, likely to never be returned to their institutional home. One need only read about the thefts that occurred at the hands of Daniel Spiegelman and Forbes Smiley to understand the far reaching impact of such events. As Jean Ashton says of Susan Gilligan’s input into the Spiegelman case, “seven-hundred-year-old manuscripts and early maps [are] not the same as fur coats or cash; they [are] cultural materials representing our shared heritage.” In these thefts, we see not just material theft, the loss of some high-value object. We see the loss and, sadly, destruction of history, of heritage, of the very material instantiation of our shared culture.
As librarians, archivists, and historians, we have a responsibility to our collections, our institutions, and our patrons to ensure that these events do not happen. We must protect our cultural heritage in order to ensure the preservation of our shared history and the continued accessibility of materials objects by researchers, students, and the public. While these are great ideals for which we can strive, how are we to go about taking action on these matters? The Library of Congress text To Preserve and Protect: The Strategic Stewardship of Cultural Resources provides many useful guidelines on how to protect collections from theft, environmental disaster, and institutional disarray. However, this book is not a cure-all for collection damage and theft. We must actively engage all parts of our organizations — from directors and executives to volunteers and janitorial workers — in order to promote the shared mission of active preservation and stewardship of our collections.