Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Security in Archives and Manuscript Repositories workshop

On Monday, I attended a one-day version of SAA's Security in Archives and Manuscripts Repositories workshop that Mimi Bowling and Richard Strassberg developed specifically for New York State Archives, New York State Library, and New York State Museum staff. About fifteen months ago, we learned that the Archives and Library were victims of a major internal theft, and this special workshop is part of our ongoing response to this discovery.

Sadly, theft of some sort is something that every archivist will likely cope with at some point in his or her career, and I haven't met an archivist who wasn't changed, in ways large and small, good and bad, by the experience of recovering from a theft. Mimi and Richard, who are both nationally recognized security experts and incredibly helpful and practical people, offer a wealth of information about reducing the risk of theft and how to respond when a theft comes to light.

I don't want to go into a ton of detail about the workshop, largely because I think that every archivist should take it, but I do want to share a few thought-provoking things that Richard and Mimi discussed:
  • Theft and sale of cultural materials is global and extremely profitable; only drug trafficking and computer crime are more lucrative.
  • Although there are no studies specifically focusing on archives and manuscript repositories, a 2001 FBI study of art museum thefts found that museum personnel were responsible for 82% of them. Law enforcement is aware of this study and will invariably treat archives and manuscript repository staff as prime suspects. Good security policies and practices enable investigators to clear innocent people as quickly as possible; they also minimize thefts of opportunity.
  • Unlike public library staff, who are often trained to deal with people who are upset or attempt to destroy or steal materials, archivists and manuscript curators generally don't know how to confront suspected thieves or vandals. We need written policies and training that will enable us to handle such situations lawfully and effectively.
Richard and Mimi also highlighted some resources and recent developments that should be of interest to the security-minded archivist (i.e., every archivist):
  • The Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) of the Association of College and Research Libraries maintains an online listing of known thefts of library and archival materials. It's sobering reading.
  • A few weeks ago, RBMS issued the final draft of its Guidelines Regarding Security and Theft in Special Collections. Although Mimi and Richard differ with some of the advice found in this publication, they do see it as a valuable resource.
  • A bill (H.R. 1166) that would make it a felony to sell stolen property via the Internet is currently making its way through the House of Representatives. Although this legislation is being pushed by big-box stores concerned about the theft and subsequent resale of electronics and other big-ticket items, it could be used to prosecute people who steal cultural heritage materials and sell them on eBay, Amazon, etc.
  • It's still difficult to convince prosecutors that crimes against cultural heritage materials warrant serious penalties. In particular, theft and destruction of public library materials is generally regarded as a minor matter; at least in New York State, prosecution is generally contingent on the cash value of the materials, which means that these crimes are typically treated as misdemeanors. Unless the library community and its friends mobilize and agitate for change, this situation likely won't improve.
Take this workshop. You won't regret it.


Jeremy N. said...

I fully agree with everything you post here, and would add that I found invaluable the point that all staff, at every level need to be involved with security procedures. The point that a janitor had caught one of the biggest perpetrators where he shouldn't have been, and felt that it was his duty to report that to higher-up staff (and that he felt comfortable doing so), was a helpful reminder of what it takes to implement policies.

Also, thanks for posting those RBMS links. I'd forgotten to look them up.

L'Archivista said...

Excellent point, Jeremy, and one I should have included in this post. Security really is everyone's responsibility, and it's up to management to create an environment in which everyone is well-informed and feels empowered to act when s/he sees a patron or fellow employee act suspiciously.