Bazookas and Box Cutters

Balancing access and security is certainly an appropriate topic for the hangingtogether blog. From Baghdad to Boston, there are security crises facing our cultural institutions. A few months ago the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington DC organized a mini-conference called “Vulnerable Valuable Documents”. Several members of the International Council on Archives Executive Committee met with senior officials at NARA to exchange experiences and ideas on how to combat “unauthorized removal” of documents, a nice, politically correct euphemism.

Shortly after that conference, a colleague at NARA wondered whether RLG could play a role in furthering this conversation and possibly brokering some solutions to this plague. I thought at the time – gee, this sounds like such a retro issue – haven’t we solved security in the archives? Since the question came up, I have been thinking more about it and have heard a surprising number of conversations about security that made me think this is a bigger issue that does need to be taken to a new level. And this is clearly a topic that cuts across all cultural institutions and all countries.

I looked at the list of observations that came out of the NARA conference to see if there might be a jumping off point that would be appropriate for RLG. Two things seemed right:

  • The level of risk of loss of documents in archival custody is inversely proportional to the level of intellectual control established over the documents. The higher the degree of intellectual control, the lower the level of risk.
  • Digital imaging is a recommended method of preventing loss and enabling recovery of intrinsically valuable documents.

Substitute the word “document” with cultural object and I think the same assertions could be made for libraries and museums as well.

I also looked at what kinds of high-level resources are there for helping us deal with security. Both the ICA and the International Federation of Library Associations strongly support the Blue Shield (often referred to as the Red Cross for Cultural Heritage) and the International Council of Museums has an amazing array of resources available on their web site covering all aspects of illicit traffic of cultural property. Many of these resources address the catastrophic events that destroy massive collections of cultural material.

And just yesterday, the Boston Globe and National Public Radio reported the arrest of a suspect who has been using an X-Acto knife to “liberate” valuable maps from archives in the Boston Public Library, Yale University, and other libraries in Chicago, New York and London. The lone thief trawling with a box cutter seems to me the equivalent of the terrorist and none of us have solved that security problem yet.

So, let’s have this conversation and keep it going – let’s learn from each other how best to protect our treasures from catastrophe as well as from the cat thief.

One Comment on “Bazookas and Box Cutters”

  1. Many thanks, Anne, for introducing the topic of holdings security.

    I participated in the NARA-hosted conference you mention in your comment and learned a great deal from the others who formed that international group.

    The conference participants included Robert Whitman from the FBI who described the Bureau’s Art Theft Program (see and emphasized the extension of its coverage to all holdings of archives, libraries, and museums. Whitman also emphasized the importance of acting quickly to respond to losses, but most archivists and librarians pointed out that thefts from their holdings are difficult to detect and thus act on in a timely way. They need assistance in detecting traces of loss and in recognizing threatening research behaviors.

    A participant from the Library of Congress described a major effort to improve collections security at that institution in the wake of serious losses affecting the collections there. The effort (described on the Library’s web site at began with establishment of a library-wide Collections Security Oversight Committee composed of senior librarians, security professionals, and support services managers. This group developed a Security Plan that defines the risk to the collections and establishes a baseline of minimum security standards by classifying collections into categories of risk; identifying “stages” of activity (process, storage, use, and transit) that affect risk; and determining controls appropriate for each collection category depending on its activity stage.

    NARA operates “clean” research rooms, monitors research using cameras and guards, and requires use of surrogates in lieu of originals at particular risk. Regrettably, losses occur despite these precautions and NARA discovers them when the items appear on the market. Just recently NARA has sought the public’s assistance in recovering lost items via its web site at . We are also poised to publish a brochure that illustrates the characteristics of documents that belong in NARA custody. We plan to distribute the brochure to sales venues to discourage traffic in illegally removed Federal archival holdings.

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