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The Most Notorious Book Thief in America

Ravi loves writing within the realm of relationships, history, and the bizarre—where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

The "Professor" Who Stole Valuable Books

James Richard Shinn was a book lover. But besides loving books, he was also a master book thief and the most notorious book thief of America. And his targets were public libraries in America where he would masquerade as a "jolly," well-educated professor and ultimately pillage rare books to the tune of half a million dollars or more.

In 1982 when police seized his storage unit in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, there were over 400 stolen books from Carnegie Mellon University, Princeton University, University of Michigan, and other colleges, valued at thousands of dollars. He was subsequently sentenced to two 10-year prison terms.

As a Philadelphia detective called him:

“He is the most fascinating, best, smartest crook I ever encountered.”

The Story of James Richard Shinn

At 6 foot 2 inches tall, weighing about 225 pounds with a "educated" face and a no-nonsense demeanor, he looked more like a professor than a thief, an advantage he exploited to full effect in his forays into various libraries across the country.

It is not certain when Shinn started stealing books but it is believed his notorious career began with the stealing of rare stamps. In successive years in the 1970s and the '80s, he moved into the rare book trade, issuing mail-order catalogues of stolen material and frequenting book fairs and shops, dealing only in discreet cash deals.

He was a professional thief and would plan every theft to perfection. He would start by compiling a "wanted" list of valuable books by reading library journals and even attending book exhibitions or author interviews. Once the list was compiled, he would then scan the National Union Catalogue to find out the libraries that held those books.

Once he zeroed in on a library, he would patiently keep a note of the security arrangements, the shift timings of the guards, and even the employee "attentiveness" at work to find out the best time to "attack."

With experience, he gradually accumulated tools and tricks to break into libraries by forging library cards, letters of recommendation, and even changing appearances to suit the "culture" of the place as he called it.

He was also well-versed in book history, restoration techniques, and bindings and the tools of his trade had several kinds of polishes, lacquers and book "changers" destined to remove the book markings of libraries and make the stolen books unidentifiable and thus saleable to unsuspecting book dealers and collectors.

And he rarely bothered to steal any book valued under $300.His unique selling point was being low-key and normal, and he succeeded for a long time just because of that one trait.

As a Los Angeles Times article reported:

“He speaks quietly and is controlled. He’s gentle and never raises his voice. He has rumpled white hair and wears suspenders. His shirttail is usually hanging out and he’s always sloppy, kind of a rustic look like a professor … He’s low key. And he never carries identification. That way, even if he’s stopped, they figure he’s just a sloppy bum stealing a book.”

James Shinn looked more like a professor than a thief, an advantage he exploited to full effect in his forays into various libraries across the country.

James Shinn looked more like a professor than a thief, an advantage he exploited to full effect in his forays into various libraries across the country.

Finally Caught

It was an alert librarian who finally caught him.

In 1981, Dianne Melnychuk, a librarian at the Haas Library at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania noticed an "unfamiliar, middle-aged and respectable-looking" man hanging around the section of rare books.

Something about the man sounded familiar and then she remembered a tip-off she had received from another library to be wary about a "sloppily-dressed, big man" who steals in libraries.

She kept a watch on him, and Shinn, probably alerted by her observation, quickly exited the library. But he made a mistake; he left behind a receipt from a nearby motel. FBI agents later found him there, surrounded by rare books and a lot of cash.

In addition, the agents also found stolen license plates, false ID papers, and manuals for safecracking and disarming alarms. Shinn surrendered and accepted his crime. He served his sentence, was paroled in 1995, and lived quietly until his death in 2005.

Shinn’s arrest not only helped eliminate the vulnerabilities of academic and public libraries, but it also helped to make library theft a criminal offense in Pennsylvania.

As William Moffett, a librarian at Oberlin College said later:

“He has demonstrated the vulnerability of the academic libraries—and it was a lesson we needed. Each of us must combat the innocence, ignorance, complacency, and indifference that block us from pursuing meaningful and effective measures to prevent library theft.”

Sources

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 09, 2021:

Thanks Peggy for your comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 09, 2021:

Thanks for the kind comments Linda

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 09, 2021:

I had never heard of this notorious book thief before reading your account. Thanks for the education. I am glad that catching him ended his criminal behavior.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on May 09, 2021:

You write about some interesting topics, Ravi. I had never heard of this book thief before I read your article. Thanks for sharing the information about him.

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Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 08, 2021:

Thanks.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 08, 2021:

Yes Meibakagh for your comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 08, 2021:

Yes you are right Devika.Thanks for your comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 08, 2021:

Does not unique and rare books attract you and me? Does not epic or scholarship books charm professors? Does not books generaly captivate every pupil, student, readers, and book lovers? Seriously, who can ignored a good read? However, the bent or urge to to steal a book or two, especially in the public library is a crime that attract legal punishment.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 08, 2021:

Sometimes certain things attract certain types of people. In this case it was books. You have an interesting story here and a criminal effect.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 07, 2021:

Thanks Vidya for your comments

VIDYA D SAGAR on May 07, 2021:

A interesting and unique article Ravi. We must appreciate the keen observation and honesty of librarian Dianne. So many rare masterpieces must have been saved because of her insight. Have a good day.

Misbah Sheikh from — This Existence Is Only an Illusion on May 07, 2021:

Nice answer, Ravi. I also have the same opinion. Thank you!!

Blessings

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 07, 2021:

Thanks Misbah. I think the librarian is the real book lover and she did not want the books to sold illegally as she wanted them to be available to all .While Shinn was also a book lover but his motive to make money by selling them defeats the very purpose of his devotion to books.

Misbah Sheikh from — This Existence Is Only an Illusion on May 07, 2021:

That was an interesting read, Ravi. A crime is always a crime. No matter whatever it is. I enjoyed reading it but one question, what do you think was the actual book lover, the librarian Dianne who caught him or Shinn?

Blessings

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 07, 2021:

Thanks Miebakagh for the comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 07, 2021:

Stealing books is a serious crime to deprived others of vital knowledge.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 07, 2021:

Stealing books is a serious crime to deprived others of vital knowledge.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 07, 2021:

James Richard Shinn was a book lover. But besides loving books, he was also a master book thief. And his targets were public libraries in America where he would masquerade as a ‘jolly’, well-educated professor and ultimately pillage rare books to the tune of half a million dollars or more.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 07, 2021:

Thanks Sankhajit

Sankhajit Bhattacharjee from MILWAUKEE on May 07, 2021:

interesting article to read

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