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

According to Wilkie, administrators “like to talk about (security) and how important it is, but when it comes down to it, money is more likely to be spent on the library’s web page or electronic serials than it is on security in special collections.” He also adds that special collections suffer from a “failure of credence” relating to theft. These comments help explain the situation, as it is much easier and more cost-effective to draft a security policy than to hire additional staff for descriptive cataloging and marking, or truly confront the vulnerabilities that may exist in the facility. The special collections theft and security policy, then, can be viewed as a defensive tactic, something to point to in the event of a theft when all eyes are on the special collections library, and, as Wilkie says, “that attitude changes, for a while at least.”

The point about failure of credence represents another crucial challenge in special collections security: the fact that it is easy to believe every patron has good intentions when the overwhelming majority of them in fact do. Wilkie warns that many special collections professionals “don’t take seriously the possibility that it could actually happen and let down their guard,” and recent thieves have taken advantage of exactly this. Forbes Smiley charmed librarians in order to gain their trust before taking an X-acto knife to rare books in order to cut out nearly one hundred maps worth roughly $3 million. Barry Landau took this even further, as he and his partner “would distract librarians, sometimes with sweets, while they stashed documents inside clothes altered to add large hidden pockets” (Brumfield).

Smiley’s case especially demonstrates the failure of credence idea: Yale did not even have its CCTV system in operation until after the X-acto knife was found in the special collections (Kovarsky). The staff had let their guard down so much that they did not even consider it necessary to turn on one of its central security technologies.

These two cases present another significant problem: the fact that anyone can become a thief, even those who seem credible and trustworthy. Landau was a presidential historian and Smiley a prominent collector of early and rare maps, and these knowledgeable, affable individuals would be the last people to suspect of theft, or even monitor vigilantly during their visits. The security guidelines do not address these intricate issues either, opting instead to prescribe broad, catch-all policies relating to researchers using the facility.

In addition, the security guidelines do not adequately address the benefits and challenges that come from the internet age as it relates to security in special collections.

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