Arrests made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation are not exactly common in the Lehigh Valley. For the arrest to be made with the help of a pair of sharp-eyed Muhlenberg College librarians is just as unlikely — and yet that is exactly what happened in 1981.
Muhlenberg gained some national attention on Thursday, Mar. 16 when it was featured on the Travel Channel show “Mysteries at the Museum.” Muhlenberg caught the show’s attention, which highlights historical events through artifacts, due to an article written this summer by Susan Falciani Maldonado, Trexler Library’s Special Collections and Archives Librarian.
In the 1980s, a book thief by the name of James Shinn was targeting college and university libraries for the rare and valuable books he could steal and resell. While on Muhlenberg’s campus in 1981, Shinn attempted to steal “Das malerische und romantische,” a German book of folk tales and fairy tales, from the then-Haas Library. As the story goes, it was only thanks to the teamwork of two Muhlenberg librarians that Shinn was caught and arrested by the FBI. As a result, the book remains a part of the College’s rare books collection and was featured on the show as a result.
The show also highlighted the College’s collection of cuneiform tablets, an illuminated edition of William Blake’s “Night Thoughts” and the first edition of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens.
“The ‘Mysteries at the Museum’ segment highlights how a good story is worth telling, regardless of how old it may be or how long ago it happened,” said Tina Hertel, Trexler Library Director. “Libraries are all about good stories, whether it be science fiction or scientific discoveries, mysteries or historical accounts.”
“Susan pulled this story from a page in Muhlenberg College’s history and wrote a new story on it that appeared in ‘Atlas Obscura,’” Hertel explained, “because she was able to retell this story so well, ‘Mysteries at the Museum’ decided to pick it up and create this segment — retelling this story yet another way.”
“They actively comb for news stories or articles,” Falciani Maldonado explained. “The producer, Nick Adrian, contacted us because he read my article.”
Falciani Maldonado explained that the program was interested in the physical book itself, as “the book was to be the heart of the story.”
When she was first contacted by Adrian he asked about the 19th century book before again contacting her about coming to film. Following the finalization of details between ‘Berg and the show, Falciani Maldonado was informed that the book and herself would indeed be featured and that a production crew was scheduled to come on Sept. 20.
The show tells the story — in this case Schinn’s capture — surrounding an artifact with the help of actors, narration and facts provided by the librarian or curator.
“[Filming] was somewhat nerve wracking. It’s not the first time that I’d ever been on camera but it was certainly the longest amount of time,” Falciani Maldonado explained. “To film the short segments [featured on the show] I was in with them almost an hour.”
Falciani Maldonado also feels that this was good exposure for the College.
“Muhlenberg has amazing articles and collections,” said Falciani Maldonado. “This story about catching a book thief here on our campus adds to the story of how interesting our holdings are.”
Falciani Maldonado hopes that “Mysteries at the Museum” will spark students’ interest in history here on campus. It might already be doing just that, as Adrian said that the episode Muhlenberg featured in is one of the most-watched episodes in three years.
“Librarians not only have more good stories to tell, but we’re here to help others tell their stories, too,” said Hertel. “Who knows what other hidden treasures can be discovered in the college archives or the Trexler Library collection?”