Lauren Schott knew the tedium of the task ahead: another methodical shift searching the Boston Public Library’s print stacks, a cavernous room of metal shelves that stretch nearly the length of a football field. For seven weeks, staff members had been desperately hunting for two missing prints valued at more than $600,000.
Despite mounting political pressure, the search could not be rash. The hundreds of thousands of boxes contained the finest treasures of the nation’s oldest public library. Finding Dürer’s “Adam and Eve” and Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait With Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre” was like a hunt for two specific blades of grass in the outfield at Fenway Park.
On Thursday afternoon, a supervisor walked Schott to row 14 and pointed to the second shelf from the ceiling, the spot where the previous worker had stopped searching. She rocked up on her toes and noticed three prints lying flat in glassine, a tissue-like protective covering. As she carefully lifted the prints, a familiar face came into view.
“I put them down very quickly because your hands start shaking when you see Rembrandt’s face,” Schott recalled Friday. She called out to the supervisor, who was just walking away. “Is that the Rembrandt we’re looking for?”
“What’s underneath it?” he asked.
“I shifted Rembrandt to the side,” Schott said. “And there’s the Dürer.”
The supervisor let out a primal yelp and shouted, “We found it!”
The discovery ended, for now, one of the darkest episodes in the 167-year history of the library. The political fallout that resulted from the missing prints had claimed the job of library president Amy E. Ryan, who announced her resignation just a day earlier, after 38 years as a librarian.
The library had been dogged by accusations of employee theft and mismanagement of treasures amassed during nearly two centuries. While police continue investigating, library staff remain confident that the two prints had been sitting on the second shelf of row 14 since being misfiled more than a year ago.
“One of the things that people don’t understand about libraries is in the past, the haphazard way things were collected and put together,” said Laura Irmscher, chief of collections strategy, who oversaw the search. “It’s really only been in the past few decades that . . . the work has begun to put an organized structure around it.”
It is easy, Irmscher said, to place a white label on the spine of a book or catalog new artworks. The challenge has been reaching into the vast holdings the library acquired during nearly two centuries and conducting an inventory of handwritten letters, medals, notebooks, prints, and more.
“That takes so much time and work,” Irmscher said. “When you start to understand the scope of what we’re talking about with 320,000 items and what it looks like laid out, that’s a different story.”
The discovery of the prints provoked all manner of speculation. Was it possible, for example, that someone had absconded with them only to return them later to the stacks?
Irmscher said the matted prints measure 20 inches by 16 inches, making them too large to stuff into a backpack. The stacks sit behind locked doors and have been subject to intense scrutiny. It would have been impossible to steal the prints and then return them, Irmscher said.
Library officials believe the Rembrandt and Dürer were last shown together to a visiting class from a school in April 2014. Library spokeswoman Melina Schuler declined to provide additional information about the class because of the ongoing police investigation. The missing prints were found with a third matted item, a drawing by George Bellows called “The Builders.”
One employee, Susan Glover, a longtime librarian who oversees the library’s special collections, has been on paid administrative leave since April. Schuler declined to discuss Glover’s status.
To understand the challenge of locating the missing artwork is to understand the vastness of the print stacks, a windowless cavern at the heart of the main library in Copley Square. Reporters were not allowed into the secure facility, but library officials said the room measures 216 feet long by 39 feet wide, making it nearly twice the size of a professional basketball court. Twenty-five rows of double-sized, metal bookcases run the length of the room.
“I don’t know if you can see the end of it,” Irmscher said. “It just feels like it goes back forever.”
Each bookcase has a dozen shelves, which are divided into three-foot bays. Each box must be placed on a flat surface and opened carefully — there may be one item inside or a dozen prints.
Each piece had to be examined individually, which often required removing a protective covering.
“Imagine going into a regular library, and you have to read every single title,” Schott said. “That’s going to take you a while. It’s the same process.”
The search began with three or four people April 10, when Ryan learned the prints had been missing for a year. They started with a list of likely places: rows near where the prints should have been filed, and boxes containing similar items. They looked at prints that had been pulled for exhibitions and were waiting to be refiled, and paged through new acquisitions that hadn’t been assigned spots on the shelves. They went through file cabinets and desks and box after box.
“We all knew the value of what was missing. It was breaking our hearts,” Irmscher said. “Every day that went by, we were crossing another likely place off the list and not finding it.”
The search ultimately expanded to 14 people. It covered nine different rooms and work areas. They kept a log of areas they searched, and marked rows and shelves with Post-it notes.
A bookbinder by trade, Schott helps repair old manuscripts, a craft the 27-year-old learned at the North Bennet Street School. She joined the search and worked three or four shifts in the print stacks, her arms sore at the end of the day from lifting boxes down from high shelves. On her first day, Schott said it took her several hours to examine the contents of just eight boxes.
Schott enjoyed the hunt because it exposed her to a new part of the library, where she started working only in September. She described sorting through prints from impressionists, curious Canadian political cartoons, and a sketch book that Robert McCloskey used to draw ducklings he brought to his New York apartment for his book, “Make Way for Ducklings.”
On Thursday, Schott took the Orange Line to Copley Square and thought about packing to travel this weekend for her grandmother’s 90th birthday in Virginia. She spent the morning using starch paste and Japanese tissue to mend a text of “Tamburlaine the Great” by Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of William Shakespeare.
After a bagel for lunch, Schott knocked on the locked door of the print stacks to begin her search. Moments later, she became the most famous library staffer in recent memory.
“I think there’s been a lot of focus on the negative — that these items were misplaced,” Schott said. “People need to recognize that these collections are huge, and we have amazing things. This is an opportunity for us to make these more protected and more accessible. These are national treasures.”
On Thursday night, Schott went to a co-worker’s home in Jamaica Plain. They celebrated like librarians, eating pizza, drinking beer, and playing with a new kitten.
Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.