Monday, June 3, 2019

Torn from Their Bindings: A Story of Art, Science, and the Pillaging of American University Libraries by Travis McDade

Tragic true crime story for book lovers
In his 2018 book Torn from Their Bindings, book crimes expert Travis McDade chronicles the criminal career of Robert Kindred, who, along with his partner Richard Green, embarked on a cross-country spree of thefts from academic libraries in the 1980s. Sometimes the two would steal rare and valuable books, but more often than not they would simply remove pages of lithographs and etchings from illustrated volumes, which Kindred would then sell as framed art prints. In this thoroughly researched and well-written history, McDade gives the reader an inside look into the motives and methods of these book thieves, who enjoyed great success up until Kindred’s eventual apprehension at the University of Illinois, where McDade works as a curator of rare books.

Prior to reading Torn from Their Bindings, I had no idea of the truly shocking extent of Kindred’s crimes, which amounted to a cross-country swath of carnage in numerous libraries that were specifically targeted for their valuable holdings. Thousands of pages were excised by razor blade from scientific journals and illustrated periodicals. Kindred amassed enough material to keep entire retail galleries stocked with stolen merchandise. Although Kindred is the main focus of this study, McDade also briefly covers other book thieves whose methods were similar to Kindred’s and whose crimes rivaled or exceeded Kindred’s in their staggering scope.

Lovers of libraries and old books will be filled with dismay at how easy it was to perpetrate these crimes. Most of the materials Kindred and Green pillaged were shelved in stacks open to the public, with no security to stop them from just walking in, spending an entire day cutting out what they wanted, and walking out. Kindred didn’t get caught until he really stretched beyond this easy modus operandi and boldly ventured into breaking and entering. As a library school graduate with a fondness for academic libraries, I have always been a staunch believer in the value of open stacks and the opportunity for serendipitous discovery amidst printed books. The level of devastation McDade reveals, however, really raises troubling questions of access vs. preservation, making it harder to justify open stacks. Also troubling is the question of how many of such thefts go undiscovered, and how many gutted volumes may lie waiting on the shelves of America’s university libraries for that unfortunate researcher or librarian who will find them damaged beyond repair and unsuitable for use.

McDade diligently covers all aspects of Kindred’s crime and punishment, including minutely detailed police procedures and courtroom proceedings. At times it is probably more detail than the general reader really needs, but if McDade’s goal is to document the definitive history of these crimes, then he succeeds. This book is more likely to appeal specifically to those with an avid interest in old books and libraries, since the average true crime buff may not be interested in the history of zoological and botanical journals, the artists who illustrated them, or the specific species of plants and animals that Kindred chose to pilfer. If, however, you find such matters of bibliographic history fascinating, as I do, then Torn from Their Bindings is really an absorbing read. It makes for a disturbingly eye-opening exposé into the world of library theft, one that any academic librarian or archivist should read.
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