It’s called library stacks serendipity, the phenomenon of setting out to retrieve one book from the shelf and discovering another a few places down the row that opens new possibilities. It happened to us while reporting on the planned $160 million Alderman Library renovation.
In pursuit of that story, we uncovered another. As we collected lore from Alderman’s 80-year history, we heard about a series of rare book and manuscript thefts in 1973. Initial research turned up little. The events got only cursory news coverage at the time. They took up no more than one sad paragraph in the University librarian’s annual report the following academic year. And the current and retired staff we interviewed lacked either sufficient details or sufficient desire to recall them.
Then we got tipped off to an old filing cabinet in the Alderman Reference Room, where staffers used to file away UVA-related newspaper tear sheets. We rummaged and found a small clipping from a 1974 Cavalier Daily article that said University police were about to subject library personnel to lie detector tests. Well, that sounded interesting.
A series of Freedom of Information Act requests later, we found ourselves in the basement of University Police Department headquarters, paging through a trove of investigative records. Called in more than four months after the first discovery of a crime, and lacking any physical evidence, the investigators were left with developing leads from office chatter. The records opened a window not just on the crimes but also on 1970s-era UVA.
The investigating officers had gotten an earful of office gossip—so much that they thought it odd, bordering on suspicious, when one library staffer answered all their questions without implicating any of her co-workers. In a follow-up report, the lead investigator identified 14 persons of interest. One was a local bookdealer previously picked up on a morals charge. He said he knew nothing about the thefts, but would the officer be interested in some pornography? (The answer was no, according to his report.)
Our story explores the two most developed lines of inquiry in the file. That doesn’t mean either theory was correct; no one has ever been charged.
When we shared the list of stolen items with Christie’s expert Rhiannon Knol, we could hear her jaw drop over the phone. She knew their worth, and she also has a special fondness for UVA’s rare holdings. Working with them several years ago as a visiting undergraduate from a nearby college helped launch her career.
At the risk of spoiling the ending, we will tell you this mystery doesn’t have one. None of UVA’s stolen treasures has ever resurfaced. We fervently hope they do. We’d only love to be able to write the sequel.
S. Richard Gard Jr. (Col ’81)
Vice President, Communications, UVA Alumni Association