This is a microcosm of the danger facing American archives. Because almost nothing is catalogued at the item-level, most of the unique material housed in these most important of repositories is particularly vulnerable to theft. When someone like Breithaupt steals a book, even a very old book, there is a catalog record that tells us it is missing—and likely some kind of duplicate copy somewhere else in the world. But when he steals a letter from Flannery O’Connor to John Crowe Ransom—unless that letter has been photocopied by another person—it basically ceases to exist. Not only do we not have the information in it, but we don’t even know that we don’t have the information in it.
The University of Iowa’s fanzine collection is going digital before it falls apart.
“Between 1893 and 1919—a three-decade run that librarians refer to as the Golden Age of the American public library system—Carnegie paid to build 1,689 libraries in the U.S. These seeded the DNA for nearly every American library built before the end of World War II. That may explain in part why there is no central accounting for Carnegie’s libraries, which were built without any oversight from a formal program or foundation: Even libraries that aren’t historical Carnegie libraries share their aesthetic philosophy.”