In November 2019, I published my first blog post, a lighthearted story that gave readers a tour of the many quirks of Oberlin's diverse and sometimes wondrous bathrooms. Almost a year later, a handful of helpful alumni told me I had missed the most important restroom on campus. The Shinn Room is a bathroom, but it's also so much more. The restroom is a crime scene, a monument, and a piece of the history of college libraries across the county.
Though I've been at Oberlin four years, I had never heard of the Shinn Room until I started reading the comments on my post. "Neither aesthetically pleasing nor generally accessible by the public, the Shinn Room nonetheless has possibly the best backstory," wrote John Congdon '90. He also linked to a Tumbler post about the Shinn Room. Featured at the top was the image of a cramped library bathroom with stark white walls and extra toilet paper stacked neatly on a shelf. It would look like any other restroom except for the wall-to-wall collage of black and white newspaper clippings detailing the life and exploits of a single criminal, James Shinn.
In small type, a faded sign in the Shinn Room explains, "It was in this washroom on the night of April 23, 1981, while awaiting interrogation for suspicious activities that a man who subsequently identified himself as James R. Shinn tried unsuccessfully to dispose of incriminating evidence. His failure instead led to his arrest and ultimately to a prison sentence for theft."
After reading the Tumbler Post, I knew I had to learn more. A quick internet search turned up a handful of old newspaper articles, but mostly I found dead ends. I wasn't concerned, though. I did what I always do when I'm stuck in the research process. I reached out to one of Oberlin's librarians. A few weeks later, I was looking at "The Shinn Files."
The first time I entered Oberlin's main library, Mudd, I was in awe. Before me was a sprawling ecosystem of bookshelves, computers, and collaborative workspaces. Tucked in the corner was the Writing Center, which provides students support with every step of the writing process, and straight ahead were two desks offering research assistance and technical help. After admiring a stone statue of a woman wearing one Converse-style sneaker, I headed up the stairs to try out one of the library's famous womb-chairs, which envelop the sitter with comfy cushions from almost all angles. The chair might not be the best place for me to study, I decided, but it certainly would be a nice place to take a nap.
Over the weeks that followed, Oberlin's libraries became less of a novelty and more of a practical part of my life. They have places to study, places to chat with friends, places to get lost in research, and places to hurriedly print essays ten minutes before class. Even though I usually do homework in my dorm, I quickly found myself at Mudd library almost every day.
In April 1981, James Shinn found himself at the very same library. The large man, who carried an empty suitcase, signed in at the door as Richard Marvin. Then, he proceeded to the stacks.
After being alerted of dubious activity by a student worker, Head Reference Librarian Raymond English observed Shinn running a small device across a book. Suspicious, he approached and asked Shinn what he was doing. Shinn didn't give a response. Instead, he picked up the suitcase and headed for the door.
See, James Shinn was a book thief and an accomplished one at that. He spent years developing a system for sneaking valuable tomes out of academic libraries. At first, he tried a lead-lined briefcase but found it was too heavy to carry inconspicuously. For a time, he turned his attention to developing a machine that could desensitize books, allowing him to evade alarms. After pouring hundreds of dollars into the idea, he eventually gave up.
Ultimately, he turned to a simpler set of tools. A stud finder allowed him to locate any metal in a book that could trigger an alarm (this was the device Mr. English had seen), and an Exacto Knife let him cut it out. He would later tell a detective that he often carried a book from another library during his thefts. That way, if he did trigger an alarm, he could show that book to the librarian and claim it was the one that set off the security system.
On this day, though, his time-tested strategy fell short. Librarians stopped Shinn at the door, and he was escorted to a small office. That was when Shinn asked to use the bathroom that would soon bear his name. Knowing the police would quickly be on their way, he attempted to flush his stud finder down the toilet. It didn't work.
The first time I was properly introduced to one of Oberlin's librarians was when a research librarian came to my First-Year Seminar. She introduced us to various library resources, from the stacks to the archives to dozens of online databases.
A few weeks later, I reached out to her directly. I was looking for an obscure 20-year-old newspaper article for an essay I was writing on Boston's healthcare system. She invited me to her hours at the Research Help Desk and guided me through the process of requesting an interlibrary loan. A few days later, a scanned copy of the article was sitting in my inbox.
When Oberlin police searched Shinn's room at the Oberlin Inn, they found 73 books, of which 63 belonged to Oberlin College. According to the police report, they were valued at around $30,000 dollars altogether. They also found numerous shipping receipts, plane tickets, and a list of valuable books and their prices. With multiple Grand Theft charges, the judge set Shinn's bond at over $50,000. He made bail and then quickly disappeared.
For almost six months, no one saw hide nor hair of James Shinn. But, while Shinn was staying quiet, Bill Moffett, Oberlin's Director of Libraries, was not. Instead, he dedicated long hours to, in his own words, "combatting this pernicious threat to academic libraries." To raise awareness about the missing criminal, Moffett reached out to libraries across the country, sending them a photo of Shinn and establishing a nationwide network of librarians on the lookout. He also reached out to various organizations in library science and bookselling, establishing communication, giving interviews, and warning others about thieves like Shinn. Through the months, he followed the case with dedication; It was Moffett who compiled The Shinn Files, which I have found so useful almost 40 years later.
I reached out to librarian Diane Lee for a firsthand account of working with Mr. Moffett. She was at Oberlin in the '80s when Shinn carried out his thefts, and she works at Oberlin today as the Interlibrary Loan Supervisor. She told me, "Bill Moffett was not a stereotypical librarian. He really cared about Oberlin and the library and frequently butted heads with people who were reluctant to approve or accept new ideas or technology. He might not have been as successful bringing attention to Shinn and his crimes had he not been so highly regarded in the worlds of libraries and academia."
Though Oberlin's libraries have always been an incredible resource for me, until this year, I didn't fully appreciate the depth of information to which they provide access. For the last three years, I've been researching the evolutionary history of a family of plants, and I'm currently in the middle of the whirlwind that is writing my senior honors thesis. In my current draft, I cite well over 50 articles, almost all of which I've found through resources at the library. Librarians have helped me track down niche books on edaphic endemism, the many volumes of "Flora of Somalia," and even a book on best practices in science writing. I've spent hours poring through the databases I first became familiar with freshman year and requesting articles through interlibrary loans. Working on an extensive research project has shown me the deeply collaborative nature of scientific discovery. For me, the librarians at Oberlin College and the resources they work hard to curate have been a huge part of the process.
Eventually, the effort of Moffett and other librarians paid off. In December 1981, a Pennsylvania librarian recognized Shinn combing the stacks of Muhlenberg College from a photo she had seen. He was arrested once again, and shortly after, police found 16 footlockers filled with 400 books from at least 21 libraries valued at $200,000. This time, Shinn didn't get away. He was found guilty and received the maximum sentence.
The year after Shinn was arrested, the Archives, Library, and Museum Protection Act was signed into law in Pennsylvania. The act made library theft a criminal offense in the state and allowed felony charges to be brought for repeat offenders. The year after that, under Moffett's careful direction, Oberlin hosted a conference on library theft, bringing together library experts and legislative officials from across the U.S. and Canada with the goal of strengthening legal protections for libraries. And so, through an unlikely set of circumstances, an unassuming bathroom at Oberlin became part of a story that crossed state lines and shaped the history of library law forever.
When I started writing this piece, I thought it would be a story about a bathroom. When I was in the middle of writing this piece, I thought it would be a story about a criminal. Now that I'm coming to the end, though, I realize it's a story about librarians, the hidden helpers and untouted teachers that have shaped my academic journey and so many others. It's a story about their hard work and determination and the humor one librarian held through it all.
"(Mr. Moffett) appreciated a good joke," remembered Ms. Lee, "like naming a bathroom after the man who tried and failed to get away with stealing from Oberlin."
English, Raymond A. Statement to Oberlin Police. Oberlin Police Department, April 28, 1981.
English, Raymond A. Statement to Oberlin Police. Oberlin Police Department, April 24, 1981.
Falciani, Susan. “The Rare-Book Thief Who Looted College Libraries in the '80s.” Atlas Obscura, Atlas Obscura, 20 July 2017, www.atlasobscura.com/articles/james-shinn-book-thief.
“FBI Jails Accused Book Thief Sought by College Librarians.” The Plain Dealer.
“James Shinn Arrested in Pennsylvania.” American Booksellers, 11 Jan. 1982, pp. 191–192.
Moffett, William A. Personal Letter. Received by Harold L. Stenger, 6 Jan. 1982.
Moffett, William A. “Conversation with Detective Shubert, Philadelphia Police.” Received by Shinn File, 13 Jan. 1982.
Moffett, William A. Personal Letter. Received by Jacob L. Chernofsky, 6 Jan. 1982.
“More Book Theft Loot.” American Booksellers, 22 Feb. 1982, p. 1395.
Oberlin College Libraries. Tumblr, 2 Mar. 2016, oberlincollegelibraries.tumblr.com/post/140332779826/the-shinn-room-is-arguably-the-most-infamous.
“Security in Libraries.” Library Journal, June 1981.
Sgt. Gilbert. Incident Report. Report No. 81C-166. Oberlin Police Department, April 25, 1981.
“Shinn Cache Located.” American Booksellers, 1 Feb. 1982, p. 751.
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