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“We have to identify if something is missing,” Brachfeld said. “We have billions of documents. Thieves take stuff you never know is missing. Some of the stuff hasn’t been looked at in 30 to 50 years.”
He also relies on the public.
“We have agents do undercover buys at trade shows. People are going to steal to make money,” Brachfeld said.
The National Archives also has a holding-protection team that’s staffed by three security specialists, one trainer and a team leader.
“Due to operational security we cannot share all of the changes,” team leader Eric Peterson wrote in an email.
But here’s what the Archives did share: It has installed public-view camera monitors at the Archives in downtown Washington, D.C., and in College Park, Md.; increased security-camera monitoring; developed mandatory exit screening of visitors and employees at their archive facilities; and improved collaboration and communication among researchers, archivists and other agencies.
“If there’s reason to think that there might be a problem, we communicate with each other,” Anderson said.
And they’re not afraid to go public.
“We want as much press coverage as possible, letting people know that there is a wolf in the hen house,” Brachfeld said.
Knowing what you have and who is interested in it is also crucial.
“The best defense is having good descriptive records of your own,” said Stephen Enniss, head of the Eric Weinmann Library at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Folger houses vast collections of rare books and manuscripts of early modern English history.
“The more someone is actually known to you and you know who is using [the resources] gives you a paper trail,” Enniss said. “We maintain circulation records. It allows you to reconstruct who was the last user.”
Researchers must register before viewing anything from their rare book collection. “If the reader is not known in the scholarly world, then we still ask for letters of reference,” Enniss said of the library’s vetting process.
And then there’s the hardware.
The Folger has an underground vault that protects some of its most precious records, including 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Users must put in a request, or a “page,” for the book from the vault. After the material is paged, a staff member works with the user directly. “No one works with the rare materials alone,” Enniss said.
See Something, Say Something
The recent thefts gained some notoriety, but thefts of historical documents have plagued archives and libraries for as long as archives and libraries have existed.
In some cases, stolen items are never recovered.
In 1990, people disguised as policemen stole $300 million worth of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Works by Rembrandt and Degas have never been recovered.
Congress even got into the act.
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) pushed the Theft of Major Art Work law through Congress in 1994, making it a federal offense to obtain by theft or fraud any object of cultural heritage from a museum.