Thursday, March 17, 2011

Preventing researcher theft: lessons from NARA's Holdings Protection Team

"It's easy to miss something you're not looking for." Remember that friendly researchers who frequently visit your repository may not be as honest as they seem and that trustworthy colleagues can experience life-changing events that leave them desperate for money, vengeful, or covetous.

This morning, representatives from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)'s newly established Holdings Protection Team gave archivists, librarians, and curators in New York's Capital District an abbreviated version of the security training that NARA staff receive. I had the good fortune of attending this session, and want to pass along a few things that I learned. In this post, I'm going to focus on the presentation given by Holdings Protection Team head Larry Evangelista, who discussed how to protect one's collections against thefts committed by researchers. In tomorrow's post, I'll focus on prevention of insider theft.

As might be expected, Evangelista's presentation focused on NARA's procedures and protocols, which naturally reflect NARA's status as a large institution that operates multiple facilities. In some instances, what follows reflects my own effort to interpret the team's guidance in ways that might be more applicable to smaller institutions. Moreover, what follows is at times purposely vague: the last thing I want to do is give some Web-trawling bad actor detailed information about NARA's security measures.

Evangelista, a former police officer and veteran retail store security specialist, set the stage by outlining the work of the team, which was started in the wake of the theft of a hard drive containing Clinton presidential records and is responsible for training NARA staff, conducting site inspections, scrutinizing movements of records (e.g., shipping, loan), and improving NARA's researcher registration process.

He then discussed theft committed by researchers, which accounts for approximately 25 percent of thefts from NARA and other repositories. Individual thieves are propelled by one of several desires:
  • Money. As we all know, some people steal records and then sell them via eBay or another venue.
  • Augment a personal collection. Some people covet records relating to a particular person or topic and are willing to steal in order to get them.
  • Employment. Private collectors who don't want to risk getting caught sometimes hire experienced thieves to purloin the items they want. This sort of "stealing to order" is common in the retail world, and it's increasingly common in the cultural heritage world as well.
  • Acquire a conversation piece. A thief spots something "cool" and decides that it would look good on her living room (or dorm room) wall. Unlike private collectors, most of whom deeply value and take good care of the records they steal, the person who wants a conversation piece may eventually get tired of looking at the record and destroy it or throw it away.
  • Destroy negative information about themselves or family members. For example, someone seeking to cover up a bankruptcy may attempt to steal court records relating to his or her case.
  • Alter the historical record for monetary gain or scholarly acclamation.
He then detailed the researcher behaviors that should put any archivist on alert:
  • Being more interested in what's going on in the research room than in the records on his or her table.
  • Constant monitoring of the whereabouts of staff and other researchers.
  • Moving records around in a haphazard or disorganized fashion.
  • Moving around the research room in an effort to find a "quiet spot" or to minimize the chance that his or her actions will be recorded on camera (if cameras are in place).
  • Arranging boxes, carts, etc., in an effort obscure what he or she is doing.
  • Frequently bending below the table or fussing with clothing . . . particularly if the clothing isn't appropriate for the environmental conditions inside -- or outside -- the research room.
  • Asking to see records that aren't even remotely related to each other (e.g., Civil War service records and court records from the 1980s).
He then offered some a series of steps for deterring potential thieves who exhibit these behaviors. However, it's important to note that these steps assume that you have and enforce policies relating to researcher registration, handling of records, staff review of records in the research room, and staff examination of researchers' notes and other materials prior to departure. Having these policies and practices in place will enable you to:
  • Provide enhanced customer service: walk over to the researcher, make eye contact, cheerfully ask if she or he needs any help, make specific requests as appropriate (e.g., "please remove only one folder from the box at a time"), and wrap up the encounter by noting that you'll "be right over there" if he or she requires assistance.
  • If this doesn't work, provide more enhanced customer service: ask a colleague to accompany you -- you want a witness -- and approach the researcher, make eye contact, and ask again whether he or she needs any help. Again, conclude the encounter by stating that you will "be right over there" in the event that your assistance is required.
  • In the event that the problem isn't solved, command presence is necessary. In larger repositories, this step may be carried out by a supervisor, but if you're a lone arranger or work in a small repository, you will likely be responsible for carrying out this step, too; however, if at all possible, you should have someone else serve as a witness. Approach the researcher, make eye contact, and in a calm, firm, and no-nonsense manner (this is not a time for "please" or "thank you"), instruct him or her to put all the records back into the box in their original order. Step away for a few minutes in order to allow the researcher to do so: you're giving him or her the opportunity to put back any records he or she may have hidden away. In addition, it paves the way for the next step:
  • Perform a "Quality control audit": carefully examine the records that the researcher has been using. Does anything seem missing or out of place? If anything seems even the slightest bit out of place, firmly but calmly query the researcher.
  • Exit checkout: carefully inspect the researcher's notes, laptop, etc. If you find records, demand that they be returned. Keep in mind that, depending upon the laws in your state, the researcher may not be guilty of a crime until he attempts to leave the building. Above all, remember that your goal is to keep your collections intact, not make accusations. Don't ask the researcher to lift or remove any article of clothing -- not even a suit jacket; doing so may be against the law in your state.
Needless to say, if you have a security camera that you can control, you'll want to start focusing on the researcher who exhibits suspicious behaviors sooner rather than later.

Finally, Evangelista noted that in in some instances, it's more appropriate to call building security or law enforcement:
  • If you witness a researcher destroy a record. You've just seen a crime take place.
  • If a researcher becomes hostile or threatening. Disengage and step away; do not allow the situation to escalate.
  • If a researcher flees the building. The researcher's home address should be on the registration form -- staff should copy it directly from a government-issued photo ID onto the form -- and the police can meet him or her there. Do not attempt to detain the researcher yourself; doing so may be against the law, and you may get hurt.
Many of us know these things, at least on some level, but it's good to be reminded of them from time to time; in fact, NARA now requires its personnel to take security training on a quarterly basis so that the essentials remain fresh in their minds.

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