Approximately 75 percent of archival thefts are committed by staff, and Holdings Protection Team member Michael Knight suggested that this figure is probably low.
This is a sad truth, but there's a definite logic to it. We archivists have ready access to the collections and the expertise to identify records that are intellectually significant or have the greatest resale value. We enter this profession mindful of our role as stewards and guardians of the historical record, but a few of us ultimately repudiate this obligation. The reasons for doing so are, of course, varied:
- Life-changing developments such as addiction, a sick child, a messy divorce, or a disastrous investment decision can render a person desperate for cash. Some people feel compelled to ensure that their families enjoy a certain standard of living.
- In some instances, an archivist's love of the past has a covetous component.
- Workplace resentments may lead a person to lash out at an employer or decide that he or she could take better care of the records at home.
- Some people become archivists because they seek access to materials that they can steal and sell. Others enter the profession and then realize that theft can augment their earnings.
Most of us are honest, and we have to keep in mind that security policies are meant not only to protect our holdings but our own sanity and reputations. Several years ago, my colleagues and I learned that one of our co-workers had been stealing materials from our holdings and that of our sister institution. Fortunately for us, the authorities quickly pinpointed him and he readily admitted his guilt. Archivists at several other repositories that experienced similar thefts haven't been so lucky: they worked under a cloud of suspicion for months on end, had their personal lives and finances picked apart by law enforcement personnel, and couldn't lean on each other for support.
Moreover, good security policies support our efforts to maintain physical control over our holdings. As Knight pointed out, records " go missing" for a variety of reasons:
- Staff fail to complete sign-out cards or pull-slips. A slip or card should be completed every time a box is moved . . . even if the staffer plans to bring it right back.
- People make mistakes when re-shelving -- especially when supervisors give the impression that speed is more important than accuracy.
- Catalog records or box tracking systems are outdated or inaccurate.
- Staff leave them unattended, either at their desks or in public areas.
- Inadvertent discarding or destruction -- a threat in facilities that house both archival and non-permanent records or in areas in which a lot of rehousing is taking place.
- Deliberate discarding or destruction. In one instance, a disgruntled contractor working in a NARA facility sporadically pulled boxes off the shelves and tossed them into the trash.
- Insist that staff complete pull slips, sign-out cards, or otherwise document the movement of records.
- Make it plain that leaving records in unsecured and unattended areas -- even for a moment -- is prohibited.
- If stacks have electronic card key access, each person who enters the stacks must swipe his or her ID. "Piggybacking" (i.e., following a person who has swiped his or her card and failing to swipe one's own card) is not appropriate.
- Emphasize that accuracy, not speed, is paramount when reshelving records.
- If at all possible, monitor contractors who work in areas housing records.
- Staff who discover security breaches must report them to their supervisor or to another person in the organization and, if appropriate, take immediate action to rectify the situation.
- Senior management encourages and expects all staff -- managers, archivists, technicians, clerical/support -- to identify and address security issues.
- Senior management solicits input and feedback from all staff.
- Supervisors train subordinates properly, encourage subordinates to share their concerns, use minor lapses as teaching opportunities, and use punitive measures as a last resort.
- All staff understand why security and physical control policies exist, accept that everyone is responsible for helping to protect the repository's holdings, and feel comfortable speaking up when confronted with the unusual or unexpected.
NARA's Holdings Protection Team hopes to offer additional training sessions for non-NARA staff in the coming months. If you get the chance to attend, by all means do so.