Friday, June 5, 2009

New York Archives Conference, day one

Grewen Hall, LeMoyne College

Yesterday was the first day of the New York Archives Conference (NYAC), which is being held at Lemoyne College in Syracuse. One of the things I really like about NYAC is its informality: many people either know each other or know of each other’s work, and the atmosphere is intimate and convivial as a result.

Today was jam-packed with sessions and other activities. IT started with a plenary session led by Maria Holden (New York State Archives), who outlined how the State Archives has responded to a recent internal theft and left the attendees with the following advice:
  • It is up to you to take ownership of security. It isn’t something that just happens or is the concern of a handful of people.
  • Do not wait until something bad happens. Addressing security issues before trouble occurs helps to avert problems and makes it easier to manage change and secure staff support.
  • Become with security standards and guidelines relating to cultural heritage institutions.
  • Do your due diligence: develop policies and procedures, and document what you have done to improve security.
  • Remember that security is as much about protecting the innocent as it is about protecting collections. Employees need to understand that good security practices help to ensure that they will not become suspects in the event that a theft takes place.
The “Everyday -- Ethics (or What Do I Do Now?)” session touched on a host of related issues, and all of the panelists made some great points.
  • Geoff Williams (University at Albany, SUNY) asserted that archivists need to question whether they should use their own holdings when conducting their own scholarly research; any archivist who does so will have to figure out what to do when other scholars want access to the results of their research and determine what to do when other users want to see the records that they’re using.
  • Kathleen Roe (New York State Archives) discussed the thorny issue of collecting manuscripts, ephemera, and artifacts that fall within their own institution’s collection parameters and concluded that the safest course of action is to avoid collecting anything that, broadly defined, falls within the collecting scope of one’s employer; this approach avoids both the actuality and the appearance of impropriety -- and frees one to develop new collecting interests.
  • Trudy Hutchinson (Bellevue Alumnae Center for Nursing History, Foundation of New York State Nurses) discussed how her nursing background informs her understanding of archival ethics and how, as an undergraduate majoring in public history, she had been required to develop a written personal code of ethics. She has since updated and expanded this code, which she discussed with her current employer during the interview process, and would like to see all archives students develop such does. (This is a great idea for current professionals, too.)
  • Patrizia Sione (Kheel Center, Cornell University) discussed a variety of ethical issues that she has confronted, and noted that she would like to see employers develop written policies relating to scholarly research undertaken by staff. She also emphasized the importance of working with donors to ensure that the privacy of correspondents, etc., is appropriately protected; doing so will ensure that appropriate access restrictions are spelled out in deeds of gift. Finally, she noted that archivists need to be sensitive to the ways in which the pressure to assist researchers with ties to high-level administrators can conflict with their ethical obligation to treat all users equitably.
In the next session, “Can We Afford Not to Act? Strategies for Collection Security in Hard Times,” Richard Strassberg (independent archival consultant) and Maria Holden (New York State Archives) outlined a wide array of low-cost security measures.

Richard Strassberg noted that the recession makes protection of collections particularly important: instances of shoplifting and employee theft are on the rise, and archivists and researchers face the same financial pressures as everyone else. He also noted that the increasing prevalence of online finding aids and digitized images has had mixed results: although they make it easier for honest dealers and collectors to identify stolen materials, they also make it easier for dishonest individuals to hone in on valuable materials.

He then outlined what he called “minimal level protection” strategies for cultural institutions, all of which require staff time but don’t cost much:
  • Have a crime prevention specialist employed by the local or state police do an assessment of your facility.
  • Establish links with the local police so that they know that you hold valuable materials.
  • Have a fire inspection conducted (but make sure that your management knows in advance that you’re planning to do so -- the fire department will close your facility if it finds serious problems that management isn’t able to fix).
  • Get a security equipment quote; even if you don’t have the money, the cost might be lower than you expect, and having the quote will give you a fundraising target.
  • Do an insurance review and have your holdings appraised; doing so will help you in the event that you suffer a loss.
  • Protect your perimeter by tightly controlling keys and, if possible, screwing window sashes shut.
  • Avoid drawing attention to valuable materials. Don’t put up red-flag labels (e.g., “George Washington letter”) in your stacks and be cautious about what you display to VIPs and other visitors.
  • Tighten up on hiring. Conduct background checks if you can, and carefully check references by phone.
Strassberg emphasized that these measures will protect collections from “conditionally honest visitors,” but will not guard against thefts by staff. Moreover, they are not sufficient for repositories that hold materials of particular interest to thieves (e.g., collections relating to politics, sports, Native Americans, African Americans, and literary figures); such institutions will likely have to invest in electronic anti-theft technology.

In the event that a theft occurs or is suspected, contact, in the following order: your supervisor (or, if s/he is the suspect, his/her boss), the police, the donor (if applicable and he/she is still around), and your staff. Staff must be cautioned not to talk about the theft with family, friends, or co-workers. Also, develop a local phone tree -- external thieves tend to hit all of the repositories in a region within a short amount of time, and your colleagues will appreciate being informed. Avoid sending out e-mail alerts; you don’t want to document suspicions that might be unfounded.

Strassberg concluded by noting that librarians and archivists must be trained to confront suspected thieves in a legal and appropriate manner -- or how to set the process of confrontation in motion by contacting security or the police. They also need to know that they cannot physically prevent anyone from leaving the research room; in New York State, they might be guilty of battery if they attempt to do so.

Maria Holden then focused upon internal theft, which is the most common security threat that archives face. Employee theft is a complex problem, and full understanding of it is hard to come by. Theft is motivated by a variety of factors: personality disorders, gambling or substance abuse problems, retaliation for actual or perceived slights, and feelings of being unvalued.

We need to create a work environment that discourages theft and to control when, where, and how people interact with records; doing so protects not only the records but also innocent people who might be otherwise be suspected of wrongdoing. There are several ways we can do so:
  • Hiring should be done carefully and with due diligence. The references of prospective employees should be screened carefully, and their collecting habits should be scrutinized carefully; the results of these checks should be documented. Many archives compel staff to adhere to codes of ethics and sign disclosure statements re: their collecting and dealing habits. The code of ethics developed by the Association of Research Libraries might be a good model.
  • A number of recent thefts have been perpetrated by interns and volunteers. Develop a formal application process for interns and volunteers, document the process, and supervise interns and volunteers at all times.
  • Keep order in your house. There is growing evidence in the literature that disordered environments can encourage delinquent behavior. Order begets respect for collections.
  • Keep collections in the most restricted space possible. The State Archives has looked at every space in which records might be found (research room, scanning lab, etc.) and then figured out when it’s appropriate to bring records into a given space and how long they should remain in it. Develop overarching rules governing removal and return of records to the stacks.
  • Keep collections in the most secure space possible, grant access rights thoughtfully, designate spaces for storage, work, and research, and establish parameters for working hours; many internal thefts occur during off-hours.
During the question and answer period, Kathleen Roe made an important point: Sometimes, people start out honest, then fall prey to gambling or other addictions or personal problems. We have to make it difficult for desperate people to steal from our holdings.

Richard Strassberg also emphasized the research proves that most people are conditionally honest, i.e., they won’t steal from their friends. We need to create work environments that make people feel valued.

I took part in one of the late afternoon sessions, “The Challenge of the New: Archivists and Non-Traditional Records,” which focused on various electronic records projects at the New York State Archives. Ann Marie Przybyla discussed our new e-mail management publication, Michael Martin detailed our Web crawling activities, and I discussed the processing and description of a series of records relating to the “Troopergate” scandal.

At the end of the day, we went to a reception and a great tour of the LeMoyne College Archives led by College Archivist Fr. Bill Bosch. Afterward, I went out to dinner with my State Archives colleagues Monica Gray and Pamela Cooley, Capital Region Documentary Heritage Program Archivist Susan D’Entremont, and Nathan Tallman, who just graduated from the University at Buffalo’s library school and is a project archivist at the Herschell Carousel Museum. We had a great time, and all of us would recommend Phoebe’s to anyone visiting Syracuse.

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