What’s Wrong with Theft and Security in Special Collections? A Study of the RBMS Guidelines

Security in special collections[1] can refer to the prevention of two separate things: the theft of rare materials and incidental damage at the hands of patrons or staff. For the purposes of this paper I will focus on the former, although accidental harm and gradual wear can at times be an even larger concern for a special collections library.

Due to a number of high-profile cases in recent years, these types of cultural thefts have been brought to the attention of the mainstream media, increasing public awareness of the value of the rare items held by special collections libraries. At the same time, the internet age has greatly changed the antiquarian book trade (Rostenberg and Stern), and the newfound ease of reaching a global marketplace can serve as a temptation for potential rare book thieves.

The response from the library community has been quite positive, as the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of ACRL has published an updated document titled Guidelines Regarding Security and Theft in Special Collections and put together a number of security resources and theft reports on its website.

Current special collections security philosophy, however, as represented in these security guidelines, does not fully address numerous issues including the realities of staffing and budget in special collections libraries, the impact of the digital age, access, and institutional culture. In this paper I will consider the cases of several recent special collections thefts in order to explore the limits of these guidelines and the continuing challenges in the area of special collections security against theft.

First, many of the RBMS security guidelines, although well-intentioned, are impractical, in both terms of available resources and their utility in the event of a real theft. The guidelines advocate the designation of a Library Security Officer (LSO) to oversee the writing of an official security policy to prevent theft as well as an action plan in the event of a theft. Many of the details, though, including increased security staff to monitor patrons, installation of security cameras, full descriptive cataloging and marking of items, are often unrealistic in many special collections due to large collections or staff and budgetary shortages.

Kovarsky points out that these types of procedures “can be a substantial chore in terms of staff time and effort, especially within a very large collection with a substantial cataloging/marking backlog.” Other suggestions, such as the installation of security cameras and other means of physical security, “can be problematic for many less affluent institutions, unable to afford the personnel, technology or physical plant required for the task.”

Other security guidelines relate to things such as the internalization of various local laws, following detailed procedures after a theft, and even having staff “request that the police officer place the suspect under arrest” if they determine there to be probable cause. Not only is a great deal of staff time required in order to get to this level of procedural and legal knowledge, which is unlikely to be prioritized by a supervisor, but during an actual emergency, it is practically impossible to recall and follow such a formal policy.

In a 2004 case at Transylvania University, for example, in which students stole a number of rare books from the special collections library, physical force was used as the special collections librarian was zapped with a stun gun. The situation led to a foot chase, “with (head librarian) Ms. (Susan) Brown and other librarians in hot pursuit” of the thieves, before they eventually escaped in a van. Later, the police were called but were unable to document the crime scene as the items taken from special collections but left in the building had already been “collected and returned to their proper places” by librarians (United States v. Allen et al).

This ugly situation raises a number of questions that cannot neatly be answered: what are librarians to do in the event of a theft-in-progress? Should they pursue an escaping suspect, even if he or she may be armed or dangerous? The guidelines only say to “follow institutional policies and applicable state laws concerning the incident,” but in the Transylvania case, the librarians were clearly shaken and acting in the heat of the moment, as is only natural in such a situation. Similarly, their decision to return the materials to their proper places was likely a result of the stress of the events, even if the “correct” response was to leave the crime scene intact for law enforcement.

This example is not meant to suggest that such thefts are typical, or that special collections librarians should fear being physically assaulted, as the use of force is extremely rare in cultural heritage thefts, but it does help demonstrate the wide-ranging techniques of thieves, which can be impossible to capture in a written security policy. In addition to the Transylvania students who used a stun pen, Daniel Spiegelman climbed up an old dumbwaiter in the stacks and unscrewed a wall in order to get into the special collections at Columbia University, where he stole rare books, maps and letters (McDade). David Breithaupt convinced Kenyon College security guards and cleaning staff to let him into the special collections where he would steal upwards of 250 rare books, manuscripts and letters (McDade 24). The suggestions for securing the facility in the guidelines—minimizing access points, designating an easily observed reading room, controlling key checkout—can always be circumvented by a dedicated enough thief. And as demonstrated in the Kenyon case, the security policy often needs to be understood by staff in other campus departments to be effective, which is not usually a realistic scenario.

So of what use, then, is an LSO and a formal security policy if it is not useful in a the event of a real theft?

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