by Frances Saux
It has been nearly 15 years since a librarian in Georgia discovered David Breithaupt, Kenyon’s former night library supervisor, selling a letter from Flannery O’Connor owned by the Kenyon College archives.
During his employment at Kenyon from 1990 to 2000, Breithaupt stole an estimated 250 books and documents from the Olin-Chalmers Libraries, including original Thomas Pynchon and Joyce Carol Oates manuscripts as well as rare materials from the Kenyon Review archives, such as the letter from Flannery O’Connor to John Crowe Ransom that led to his capture he put it up for sale on eBay in 2000.
According to Travis McDade, Curator of law rare books and associate professor of library services at the University of Illinois, library and archive thefts are all too common. He cited the growth of the Internet as a reason why archives face theft; web sites such as eBay have made it easier for people to profit from the thefts.
Yet McDade chose a 15-year-old incident from Kenyon’s library as the subject of his book, Disappearing Ink: The Insider, the FBI, and the Looting of the Kenyon College Library, which came out September of this year. Earlier this month, he published an article on LitHub.com on the same subject entitled “The Unseen Theft of America’s Literary History.”
But what makes the incident at Kenyon unique? “Quantity and duration,” McDade said.
Breithaupt’s online transactions revealed that he had sold many other archive documents on the web, but according to McDade, he also kept many for himself. Investigators found another Flannery O’Connor letter framed on a wall of his home. McDade thinks Breithaupt was fascinated with the significance of the archive artifacts. “He wanted to possess these things,” McDade said. “The fact that these materials were worth money was just a bonus.”
Kenyon’s protocols have changed since the archive thefts. “We continue to make changes to improve building security and safety,” vice president for library and information services (LBIS) Ron Griggs said; Griggs was not employed at the College during the thefts but is aware of the incident. “Not necessarily in response [to the Breithaupt thefts], because it was so long ago, but simply because it’s a good practice.”
Associate Vice President for LBIS and Library Director Amy Badertscher joked that the only incident of theft in the library since she joined Kenyon’s staff in 2006 has been students taking “Read!” posters off the walls. She also said the Breithaupt thefts were not entirely a matter of security — Breithaupt was an employee, not an outsider. “It happened on the level of personal responsibility, on the level of trust,” Badertscher said.
The College still does not know what precise portion of Breithaupt’s stolen items eventually made their way back to Kenyon’s collection and which are still missing.
When the criminal prosecution that followed the thefts was not as robust as Kenyon would have liked, the College opened a civil suit against Breithaupt.
McDade said such a step was almost unprecedented. “They didn’t expect to get any money from this; they knew he didn’t have any money,” he said. “What they wanted was the things back that he had stolen.”
Kenyon ultimately won a $1 million judgment against Breithaupt. The suit led to a deeper criminal investigation, which resulted in many of the stolen goods being returned to the library. McDade believes all universities should follow this example. “Kenyon deserves a pat on the back for this,” he said.