Theft of rare library books means public will suffer

January 1, 1999

Public access to rare collections held by Durham University is in jeopardy following the theft before Christmas of a number of valuable books and manuscripts.

Thieves got away with seven titles including 14th and 15th-century manuscripts, a 1623 first folio of Shakespeare, an English translation of the New Testament as well as a first edition of a version of Beowulf printed in 1815 and Drayton's Polyolbion, a book of maps and poetry of the English counties published in 1612.

The items are worth several hundred thousand pounds. Librarian Beth Rainey, in charge of special collections, said: "This is a theft from the nation as well as the university, but it does highlight the tension between access to rare items and their security."

Ms Rainey said most of the items were not insured, adding: "We will be reviewing our exhibition policy and access to university buildings because, like most universities, we cannot afford to tie up a security person in one place."

Without constant supervision, some valuable items simply could not be exhibited, said Ms Rainey. "This is a bitter experience as we have always taken the line that our collection is not just held for scholars as they are the cultural heritage of the Northeast."

Murray Simpson, special collections librarian at Edinburgh University, agreed that it was vital to get old and rare books on to public display to show how learning took place before the advent of the internet. "Few people realise how early learning was transmitted," he said. "Without such exhibitions everyone loses out."

Chris Shepherd, librarian at the Brotherton Library at Leeds University, said there was no substitute for strong cabinets, alarms and proper supervision. "We have to select exhibits which are consistent with the available security," he said.

The Durham books had been on display since August in locked glass-topped display cases in Bishop Cosin's library, which was established in 1669. They will be virtually impossible to sell on the legitimate market as university staff and the police have alerted the antiquarian dealer network.

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