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Library Theft

Theft of Books and Manuscripts from Libraries: An Advisory Code of Conduct for Booksellers and Librarians

This Code has been developed by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA) and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) to provide their respective members (and others) with guidelines on the issues which arise when library or ex-library books and manuscripts appear in the trade, either as a result of legitimate sale or theft.

1 Introduction

This code is based upon two principles:

  • owners have a responsibility to take all reasonable measures to protect their property
  • purchasers have a right to benefit from the sale of property legitimately acquired.

In developing the Code, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA) and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) have taken account of a number of relevant publications, listed in Appendix B.

It is hoped that both Associations will accept it as an appropriate Code of Practice, and, in particular, that librarians will draw it to the attention of their governing bodies or committees.

ABA and CILIP believe that this Code, developed by mutual agreement, will be beneficial to all parties.

2 Security in Libraries

2.1 Libraries have a responsibility to maintain secure areas for the storage and use of rare books, manuscripts and other special materials. It should be normal practice to:

  • store such materials so that they are not directly accessible to the public, whether readers or visitors
  • ensure that such materials are read under supervision in a place provided for the purpose
  • control the issue and return of such materials to and from individuals
  • ensure that adequate security measures are taken if such materials are loaned to other institutions
  • ensure that secure routines are developed and enforced when such materials are removed from their normal location for such purposes as conservation, binding or photography
  • devise procedures that will minimise the opportunities of theft by library staff or others contracted to provide services to the library

2.2 Libraries have a responsibility to make unique and (if possible) indelible marks of ownership (eg: blind-stamping or selective page marking) on rare books, manuscripts and other special materials whenever this is possible and is consistent with their proper care and conservation.

2.3 Libraries have a responsibility to ensure that their property is adequately insured against theft, where appropriate and practicable.

2.4 Libraries have a responsibility to catalogue, calendar, or otherwise record their rare books, manuscripts and other special materials. Such records should whenever possible, include copy specific information which may assist in the identification of a particular copy of a printed book, and, in some cases photographic evidence.

2.5 Libraries need to be aware of new means of buying and selling books across the internet including services such as eBay.

3 Disposal of materials by libraries

3.1 Libraries may, from time to time, dispose of books, manuscripts and other materials by way of trade or otherwise.

3.2 When disposing of books libraries should indelibly cancel their identifying marks of ownership.

3.3 Libraries should maintain a proper record of the disposal, including the first destination of the item, and sufficient information to enable subsequent identification of a particular copy of a printed book.

3.4 Libraries should take account of any national guidelines which may be developed on the disposal of materials.

4 Acquisition of ex-library materials by booksellers

4.1 Booksellers have a responsibility to satisfy themselves that books offered to them for purchase are the legitimate property of the seller. The seller should provide documentary evidence of an item’s provenance before any sale.

4.2 Booksellers have a responsibility when buying a book with one or more library marks of ownership, to satisfy themselves that the offer of sale is made by an authorised person.

4.3 Booksellers who have concerns about the legitimacy of the proposed sale should consult the register of stolen books (see below, para. 5.3), and, if necessary, contact the library whose property they are, apparently, being offered.

5 Reporting of theft

5.1 It is essential that both librarians and booksellers report thefts of books as soon as such thefts are discovered.

5.2 Thefts should always be immediately and fully reported to the governing body of the library, the Police, and to any insurance company which may be involved.

5.3 Thefts should also be reported to:

  • the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA - phone: 020 7421 4681; The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) maintains an online list of stolen books, which members of all the affiliated national associations consult if they are suspicious about books offered to them. Both the ABA and the ILAB also issue immediate alerts to their members of books known to have been stolen. In general, all books valued at more than about £100 should be reported to the ABA, which will both alert its own members and forward details on to the ILAB for worldwide dissemination;
  • the Art Loss Register (Phone: 020 7841 5780; Fax: 020 7841 5781; for items valued at £300 or more. Many insurers insist on a report to the ALR as a condition of cover for such items

5.4 When thefts are reported, sufficient information (including photographs where available) should always be provided to ensure accurate identificationof the property if and when it is recovered. Basic bibliographical details and the date of the discovery of the loss are essential.

5.5 It is emphasised that the reporting of theft is important even if the theft is not discovered for some time after it appears to have taken place. Books may appear in the trade many years after they are stolen.

6 Recovery of stolen goods

6.1 The legal position, in English law, is discussed in Appendix A.

6.2 Within the trade, there is a recommendation that when a bookseller purchases, in good faith, a book stolen from another bookseller, the books should normally be returned with each party bearing 50 percent of the costs. This informal agreement may, in some circumstances, be overridden by the requirements of the law. When a librarian discovers that a bookseller has purchased, in good faith, a book stolen from the library, the library may wish to consider a similar arrangement, subject to negotiation and agreement.

6.3 When a book has been purchased in good faith by a bookseller in the United Kingdom, having been stolen from a library in the United Kingdom, and the bookseller and the library are unable to reach an agreement on its return, they may, by common consent, submit to binding arbitration by a Panel established for the purpose by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association and CILIP’s Rare Books and Special Collections Group. This Panel will normally consist of two nominees of each body, who will elect a Chair from among their own number at each meeting.

© CILIP. This document may be copied in whole or in part without the prior permission being sought from the copyright holder, provided due acknowledgement is given. Registered Charity Number 313014


The following summary of the position in English law is offered without prejudice. Parties should always take professional advice on legal issues.

An item remains the property of its original owner unless:

  • the owner sells that title in a legitimate contract of sale. Under English law, anyone purchasing a stolen item while under the impression that they are buying the legal title, will not acquire a clear legal title unless the vendor can prove they hold the legal title. Purchasers should always require proof of title.
  • the owner abandons it. This requires an unequivocal statement of their intention to abandon it. Neither negligence in storage, nor the length of time since the theft are sufficient to amount to abandonment. Misleading statements from members of library staff do not affect this position, although they may affect the library's case in civil law to sue for return of the book rather than for damages.
  • the item is purchased from a legitimate dealer, in good faith, in a country where English law does not apply

Possession of stolen items

Criminal law
Liability for handing stolen goods under the criminal law requires the knowledge or recklessness as to whether the goods are stolen. Recklessness may include not making sufficient enquiry if goods are offered in suspicious circumstances.

Civil law
Anyone buying or selling property without the permission of the original legal owner is liable to the original owner for the tort (civil wrong) of 'conversion'. This is a tort of strict liability ie. the knowledge or belief of the purchaser is irrelevant. Purchasers, including those who purchase in good faith from a legitimate dealer, may be sued in English law at the County Court for damages by the original owner, even if they have sold the property to someone else. The County Court may also issue an order requiring disclosure or records to trace the present owner of the property. Purchasers are advised not to buy unless the seller is available to be sued in turn for any loss the purchaser suffers from being sued by an original owner.


A current list of relevant websites and publications is maintained by the Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL). Select and follow the links for ‘Collaboration’, then ‘CERL Security Working Group’.

Revised January 2015.