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The Most Notorious Book Thief in America

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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.

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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.”


This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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