Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Alleged thieves apprehended at Maryland Historical Society

Barry Landau: Presidential Historian and Collector (November 14, 2007) from Gerald R. Ford on Vimeo. Have you seen Mr. Landau in your research room?

Barry Landau is a former White House protocol officer and a prominent collector of ephemera and artifacts associated with U.S. presidents; he has a particular interest in materials relating to presidential inaugurations and the dogs of presidents. Laura Bush consulted him when planning George W. Bush's second inauguration, he's met most if not all of the recent presidents at least once, and, as you can see above, he has spoken at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library on at least one occasion.

He may also be a thief. On Saturday, Landau and his assistant, Jason Savedoff, were doing research at the Maryland Historical Society. A staffer observed Savedoff take a document, conceal it in a portfolio, and take it out of the research room. They kept an eye on the duo and called the police, who opened the locker assigned to Savedoff and discovered approximately 60 documents belonging to the Maryland Historical Society, including:
  • Papers signed by Abraham Lincoln and worth approximately $300,000
  • Inaugural ball invitations worth roughly $500,000
  • A Washington Monument commemoration worth an estimated $100,000
The police called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has opened an investigation into the activities of Landau and Savedoff. They also took Landau and Savedoff, both of whom live in New York City, to jail, where they remain at the time of this writing.

It's important to remember that, in the eyes of the law, Landau and Savedoff are innocent until they have their day in court. However, the evidence against them seems quite damning -- and the judge who denied them bail apparently agrees.

Owing to the ongoing investigation, Maryland Historical Society staffers haven't said much about the arrest of Landau and Savedoff. However, it's pretty plain that they were on the ball: they were keeping an eye on their researchers, observed behavior that aroused their suspicions, and continued monitoring the research room while waiting for the police to arrive. Once they're at liberty to discuss the incident, we may learn that they were also providing "enhanced customer service," performing "quality control audits," and videotaping the duo.

It's also apparent that Maryland Historical Society staff weren't unduly swayed by Landau's prominence -- or by the fact that he and Savedoff brought them cupcakes. Archivists are, by and large, a helpful bunch, and most of us want to make the research process as user-friendly as possible. It's all too easy to conclude that the friendly researcher who frequently graces our research room is trustworthy and thus doesn't need to be monitored very closely. It's also easy to decide that a prominent researcher should be allowed to bend a few rules -- or that a powerful, well-known person shouldn't be challenged or provoked in any way.

The arrest of Landau and Savedoff is an excellent reminder that neither friendliness nor prominence should induce us to disregard our security protocols or relax our research room rules. The Maryland Historical Society could have suffered grievous harm not only to its holdings but also to its public image and staff morale. Thanks to the actions of its staff, its collections have not been compromised, its reputation remains intact, and staff can hold their heads high.

Before you heave a sigh of relief that Landau and Savedoff are off the streets and out of the archives, please keep in mind that they have visited other repositories -- and that they might not have used their real names when doing so. The Baltimore Sun is reporting that:

. . . . Lee Arnold, senior director of the library and collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, said Landau and Savedoff -- using the name "Jason James" -- had visited more than a dozen times since December, identifying themselves as uncle and nephew . . . .

Landau introduced himself as a scholar and donated a copy of his first book to the society, and each time he came bearing cookies. But when officials tried to write him a thank-you note, it was sent back as undeliverable. An email address Savedoff gave also appeared to be invalid. Staff became suspicious and called a meeting, and planned to check their driver's licenses upon the next visit.

Moreover, Savedoff doesn't seem like the sort of person a legitimate researcher would hire as an assistant:

Of Landau, Arnold said: "He certainly was very personable. He had class. He knew how to conduct himself in a research library." But Savedoff, of whom little is known, was "rough around the edges" and "repeatedly asked naive questions," he said.

"He never understood what we were saying," Arnold said.

In the coming weeks, many of us will have to spend a little time reviewing our researcher registrations. For at least a few of us, this review will be the first step in a long, intensive effort involving the FBI and exhaustive inventorying of collections accessed by Landau and Savedoff.

Want to avoid being victimized by the likes of Landau and Savedoff? The Society of American Archivists has published an archival security guide and regularly offers a first-rate archival security workshop, there's a peer-reviewed journal devoted to security matters, and I've posted some strategies and tips from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's new Holdings Protection Team here and here. Other resources are out there if you look for them.

1 comment:

Bovina Historian said...

I watched the beginning of the video of Mr. Landau at the Ford library had to chuckle and cringe at the person introducing him when he said 'he's done it again and again and again.'