The FBI is looking for a man library officials say may have sliced valuable maps and prints from rare books in as many as eight university libraries, including the Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute in Baltimore.
The man, using the names Gilbert J. Bland Jr. and James Perry, was held briefly last Thursday by campus police at the George Peabody Library on Mount Vernon Place.
Dennis O'Shea, a Johns Hopkins University spokesman, said the man was caught with one map he admitted cutting from a rare 18th-century book in the Peabody collection.
But on the advice of Baltimore police, Mr. O'Shea said, the library accepted several hundred dollars in cash restitution from the man, and he was allowed to go.
Later, library officials determined that another dozen 18th-century maps were missing from volumes Mr. Bland had handled earlier that day.
They also learned from an Internet query that similar materials were missing from the libraries at seven universities, including two libraries at the same, unnamed university. All had been handled by someone using the same aliases. The victims included libraries at Duke University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and another collection in the Chicago area.
Mr. O'Shea declined to name the other affected libraries, saying they had not yet decided to make their losses public.
FBI Special Agent Larry Faust last night confirmed the investigation, and said, "We have been in contact with the U.S. attorney's office as well, concerning this matter to determine what if any type of charges would be appropriate."
So far, he said, no charges have been filed.
Mr. Bland, if that is his real name, is wanted for questioning. He is described by the FBI as white, in his mid-40s, about 5-foot-9, 160 to 170 pounds, with a mustache and sandy-colored hair.
The theft of valuable prints and maps from old books -- apparently for sale to antiques dealers -- has been a growing problem for libraries in recent years.
James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, testified in 1993 that thieves and "slashers" had stolen thousands of items from perhaps 500 old books in the Library of Congress before the stacks were closed to users in 1992.
Three people were jailed. The replacement value of the damaged books was estimated at $1.8 million.
Hopkins officials have declined to estimate their losses, but it is expected to total in the thousands of dollars.
The incident at Peabody last Thursday began when a man entered the library and presented "call slips" asking to see some specific rare books, said Mr. O'Shea, the university spokesman.
The thief presented a University of Florida student identification card bearing the name James Perry. Library personnel routinely photocopied his student identification. Mr. "Perry" looked innocuous, dressed in a blue blazer and khaki pants, Mr. O'Shea said.
Because Peabody's stacks are closed to users, librarians retrieve the books for researchers who take them to a desk.
"It's a very large, very beautiful and ornate room, and there are desks sort of scattered around. It's not very crowded usually, so one can get off into a corner and be reasonably surreptitious," Mr. O'Shea said.
Someone noticed Mr. Perry, however. "He kept riffling through the books, looking at the prints," said a Baltimore researcher who saw him, and who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He wasn't reading it or doing any research."
The researcher alerted library personnel after Mr. Perry appeared to remove a page and peered nervously over his shoulder.
Peabody campus police soon confronted him, and he bolted. Campus police caught him, and called in Baltimore police. To them, he presented a driver's license in the name of Gilbert Joseph Bland, Jr.
"We were advised by the city officers who came that, with this kind of crime, we were running the risk that, if we placed charges, he would make bail and never show up [for trial] and we would get no recompense of any kind," he said.
The suspect indicated he was willing to make restitution and was carrying a substantial amount of cash.
And in a move they would later regret, library officials agreed to accept restitution. "He paid in cash," said Mr. O'Shea, who declined to say how much, except that it was "in the hundreds" of dollars. The incident had lasted about two hours.
"At that point we were only aware of damage to one book and the removal of one map."
Later, Peabody's staff found that Mr. Perry had looked earlier at other books.
"There appeared to be 12 maps missing from those books," Mr. O'Shea said, although it was not clear who was responsible for the damage.
The library also found evidence that the suspect had visited other libraries and universities. The evidence was found in a satchel the suspect had tossed under a bush as he tried to flee.
Internet queries found that Mr. Perry or Mr. Bland had turned up at the libraries of the seven institutions. Moreover, similar damage was found in books he had handled at the those libraries, they reported.
UNC officials have said they found at least three damaged books worth nearly $6,000, according to press reports.
"Obviously, it destroys the value of the book. Its value to researchers is also destroyed," said the Baltimore researcher who saw Mr. Bland.