Sunday, September 18, 2011

SAA 2011: Theft Transparency in the Digital Age

At long last, here it is: the last post concerning the 2011 Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archivists. I’m really glad I got the chance to attend Session 705, Theft Transparency in the Digital Age: Stakeholder Perspectives, and my only regret is that so few people were able to do so: Irene caused a lot of East Coasters to leave Chicago on Friday evening or Saturday morning so that they could get home in advance of the storm. (My friend Maggi and I opted to remain in Chicago until Sunday -- a decision that turned what should have been a one-day, fourteen-hour car trip into a two-day, twenty-two hour adventure, but not a decision that I particularly regret.)

This post is going to be long, but the topic of archival security is an important one -- and one that is all too often overlooked until one’s own repository is affected. I work at a repository that recently experienced major theft, and, I urge you not to wait until a theft comes to light and your working life is upended by the experience. Archival security is every archivist’s responsibility.

My former colleague Brittany Turner opened the session by highlighting recent changes in the ways archivists deal with theft: the older view that theft is a shameful thing that should not be discussed is being replaced by a new emphasis on openness and transparency, new technological tools can help archivists and rare book dealers recover stolen materials, and a new conception of stakeholder relations is leading to the creation of a united front against theft.

Travis McDade of the College of Law, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign noted that, thanks to the Internet, archival theft is a growth industry and that thefts of archival materials are now outstripping thefts of rare books. He also stressed that repositories, which often experience the process of criminal prosecution as long, tedious, and frustrating, are starting to explore other ways of taking action against thieves. For example, after federal prosecutors declined to take action against a nighttime library supervisor who was stealing and selling materials from the Kenyon Review archives, Kenyon College successfully filed a civil suit against him. This individual, who was ultimately prosecuted and spent a year in jail, will spend the remainder of his life paying several hundred thousand dollars in restitution. The Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia, also won a civil suit against its former director, who was later convicted of stealing materials from the museum.

Mimi Bowling, consulting archivist and co-instructor of SAA’s archival security workshop) focused on the importance of being open about theft. She began by highlighting the damaging effects of sweeping theft under the rug. Several decades ago, Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscripts Library discovered that one of its graduate student assistants stealing materials. A search of his home uncovered thousands of manuscript items and rare books, but the library’s director and staff kept quiet because they feared that an influential benefactor would find out and withdraw a large bequest. A grand jury investigation commenced and, as luck would have it, the benefactor was one of the jurors. He was outraged by the library’s failure to inform him of the theft and opted against leaving money to the institution. Moreover, staff learned that the young man had also been a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and had been caught stealing from the university’s museum -- but no one at Penn ever disclosed this fact. Had his past been known, Columbia would never have hired him.

She then discussed some of the benefits of publicizing theft. When the Edison National Historical Site (now the Thomas Edison National Historical Park) discovered that a board member was stealing archival materials, it called in the FBI, which searched the individual’s house and discovered thirty-three cubic feet of stolen materials. The Edison National Historical Site staged a press event highlighting the recovery of these materials and as a result many collectors of Edisonia came forward and said that they had bought materials from this individual. As a result, many items that might have been permanently alienated from the Edison National Historical Site’s collections found their way back to the repository. (Bowling later noted that, several years after the first Edison theft came to light, a dealer contacted indicated that the culprit was again selling material. The Edison National Historical Site recovered an additional three cubic feet of material as a result.)

Sarah Baldwin, the current president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA), discussed recent ABAA efforts to stop the trade in stolen materials. Members of the ABAA, which has long had a Security Committee, contend not only with theft but also with forgery, credit card fraud, and other scams. There is little or no formal security training for rare book dealers, but no reputable dealer wants to buy or sell materials of questionable status: dealers who trade in stolen materials are professionally and financially liable for doing so.

In order to combat the trade in stolen materials, ABAA now maintains a security blog. Since its creation last year, it has been used to disseminate forty-two security alerts. Repositories and dealers wishing to have information posted on the blog should e-mail or phone the ABAA’s executive director. After the information is vetted, it will be shared via the blog, and the ABAA's Twitter feed and listservs.

Baldwin also noted that in some instances, it’s not easy to determine whether an item has been stolen. This is particularly true of 19th-century and older government documents, many of which entered into private hands shortly after creation. This flow into private hands was seen as legitimate at the time, but these records are now often subject to replevin. Some dealers prefer to donate the materials back to government archives in an effort to avoid remaining at risk of replevin.

Scott Peterson, a collector of original letters of U.S. Supreme Court justices, manuscripts dealer, board member and past president of the Manuscript Society, and a partner in the Chicago office of the law firm of Holland and Knight, which has been involved in a number of cases involving manuscript materials, offered an interesting perspective on archival security.

As a collector and dealer, Peterson has returned materials that turned out to be stolen, and as a board member and president of the Manuscript Society, he has helped to develop policies relating to theft and stolen materials. As an attorney, he has represented several individuals who were accused of stealing or holding materials –in large part because state governments have started trying to get back records that were alienated centuries ago. Many manuscript collectors view replevin as theft, and they are suspicious of archivists as a result; some people would prefer to shred a record than be subject to replevin. (I don’t know how other attendees reacted to this statement, but my heart skipped a beat.)

Peterson noted that the legal doctrine of laches, or “sleeping on one’s rights,” is in some instances a successful defense against replevin actions. If a defendant can prove that a government knew or should have known at some point in the past that a record had been offered for sale or was in the hands of a known individual but didn’t take action to recover it, it has essentially forfeited its right to recover the record.

The Manuscript Society been working with the Council of State Archivists to come up with some sort of replevin policy. It is also working with the ABAA; Mansucript Society and ABAA members are among the first people to be offered stolen materials, and it makes sense for us to work together.

Peterson also recommended reaching out to international archival organizations. The market in stolen materials is global, and anti-theft efforts should also be global.

Peterson then outlined a four-point plan for combating theft: proper security and monitoring, stiff warnings re: prosecution, inventory control, and a reporting protocol for theft (local law enforcement, groups and associations, press releases). Repositories should also be prepared conduct their own internal investigations, monitor the Internet and dealers’ catalogs, and to prosecute and to sue in civil court.

Building upon Peterson’s remarks, Bowling emphasized the need for archivists to get to know local dealers and establish broader contacts. Most dealers are honest, and establishing a relationship facilitates communication in the event a problem comes to light. She also urged reformatting of materials whenever possible. Doing so passively prevents theft by enabling researchers to use reformatted surrogates and provides clear proof of ownership.

During the question-and-answer part of the session, the panelists identified a number of other problems and needs:
  • There is no central clearinghouse for reporting thefts at present, and the reporting mechanisms that exist are not always tailored to librarians’ or archivists’ needs. For example,, which is maintained by OCLC, makes it possible to annotate appropriate WorldCat records. It has fostered recovery of rare books, but archives aren’t using it: the types of materials that are typically described in WorldCat are not the materials that are most likely to be found in archival repositories.
  • Libraries’ deaccession procedures vary widely, and as a result and the presence of an institutional stamp doesn’t necessarily mean anything; a book lacking a “withdrawn” stamp or other marker may well have been legitimately deaccessioned. This is frustrating, and dealers are less aggressive as a result.
  • We are just starting to explore cross-organizational collaboration. The ABAA has worked with the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association and OCLC on and has explored possibility of having an RBMS security workshop every year, but everyone who has a stake in archival and library security must be able to exchange suggestions, protocols, etc., across professional and organizational boundaries.
  • We have yet to figure out how to enlist researchers in archival security efforts. (None of the panelists was quite sure how to do this, and I’m not either, but it strikes me as an important and overlooked subject: in the wake of my own repository’s theft case, I was struck by the frequency with which researchers were deeply outraged the culprit’s actions. Honest researchers value archives, and they can’t abide people who steal, destroy, or corrupt our holdings. Surely they have a role to play in safeguarding our collections.)
  • We need an online mechanism for disseminating photographs and information about people arrested for or convicted of theft and quieter means (e.g., phone trees) of sharing information about researchers who behave suspiciously but haven’t been apprehended.
Good suggestions all. I really hope that the communication capabilities of the Internet, which to date has proven to be a superb mechanism for facilitating the theft and sale of cultural heritage materials, will soon become an equally superb mechanism for deterring and detecting thievery.

Photo: the main branch of the Chicago River and the corncob towers of Marina City, as seen from the 29th floor of the Hotel 71, 22 August 2011, 9:14 PM.

1 comment:

Brittany Turner said...

Thanks so much, and I'm glad you enjoyed it! For anyone who wasn't able to attend but wished they could, audio recordings are available for $15 at