Friday, November 21, 2008

Librarians hot in pursuit

Every week or so, I receive an e-newsletter from the British Library. If you're like me, I usually skip over e-newsletters until I've got a dull moment, and then quickly skim - or not - before deleting. They're not, generally, riveting or inspiring reading.

Today, I paused.

"Library Thief Convicted", the headline proclaimed. And I felt that chill touch down my back, that someone - anyone - could desecrate a library. Books, for heaven's sake. Libraries. The British Library. Oooh. Not good.

The courtyard in front of the new British Library on the Euston Road. Photo by James.

But then I read the rest of the newsletter (reproduced in full below), and I started thinking. I've got (like many) a romantic, educated and probably middle-class fondness for libraries and books. I love libraries. I love that they are free. I adore the prospect of exploration. I'm excited about how the libraries in Melbourne have recently awoken, and they're cool places to be, to socialise and exchange ideas and learn and listen and read, of course, of course, to read is at the heart. I love to wander the shelves, trailing my fingers over spines, snuffling the pages, occasionally finding bookmarks, receipts, other people's library check-out tickets.

The old British Library building in the centre of the British Museum. Who knows, the previous reader of the book could have been Karl Marx. Photo by James.

But there's another side, as ever. Books can be political. They are. Books can represent views that harm, that twist and deny events or conflicts that are of prime importance to us. That's why books get banned, burned, banished, black-listed. That's also why they get written, debated, promoted, passed around. The infinite variety in humans? Well, of course it spawns infinite variety in the books we humans write.

And so I wonder: why did
Mr Farhad Hakimzadeh steal those books and pages? Why would an academic and researcher into the Mughal Empire, take these documents? Profit or politics? Academic involvement with his subject, to an overweaning degree? What prompted it? Why?

Reading the newsletter, it soon becomes apparent that the librarians are upset about precisely the same question. Dame Brindley and her minions are on the warpath. You can almost hear them howling "But he's an academic! Why would one of our own harm our precious books?" And I don't blame them. It is - as they all immediately point out - an enormous breach of trust. And the library's promise to pursue thieves with 'utmost vigour' - while it brings to mind a rampage of librarians on the warpath - is laudable and should be supported.

I'll be interested to read more about the case. The whole newsletter is reproduced below for your interest, and there's an interesting interview with the Head of Collections.


Mr Farhad Hakimzadeh, a former British Library Reader, is due to appear at Wood Green Court today (Friday 21 November). Hakimzadeh has pleaded guilty to ten counts of theft from the Library, and asked for further charges to be taken into account. He has also admitted theft from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Sentencing in this case is expected later today and you may have seen coverage of the case in this morning's press.

Hakimzadeh used considerable skill, deceit and determination to steal leaves, plates and maps from collection items. In many instances his thefts were initially difficult to detect. The items he mutilated are mainly 16th, 17th and 18th century items, with a lesser number of 19th and a few 20th century items. The predominant subject area is the West European engagement with Mesopotamia, Persia and the Mogul [Mughal] empire (roughly the area from modern Syria to Bangladesh), and western travel and colonisation / exploration.

Readers should be assured that theft from the British Library is an extremely rare occurrence. As Readers will appreciate, we are a library, not a museum. We are committed to making our collections available in the interests of scholarship and research, and to do this an element of trust is necessary. Hakimzadeh fundamentally betrayed this trust.

I know that Readers will share the anger we feel about this crime. The Library takes very seriously its duty to protect the collections for your use, and for the generations of Readers to come. We have zero tolerance of anyone who harms our collections and will pursue anyone who threatens them with utmost vigour.

Danger - Armed Librarians On Site.

The successful prosecution of Hakimzadeh follows a thorough and detailed investigation by Library staff and the Metropolitan Police. This led to the recovery of some of the items stolen by Hakimzadeh, and civil proceedings are now underway to recover further items and to seek financial compensation.

The Library has been heartened by the generous co-operation it has received during this investigation from a number of institutions and from other libraries in this country and abroad.

Should any Reader have a concern about the security of a collection item, please do speak to a member of Reading Room staff.

Dame Lynne Brindley
Chief Executive Officer
The British Library

No comments: