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

In the event of a theft, the guidelines recommend to “inform local booksellers” and also to report the items to “appropriate electronic mailing lists and national stolen and missing book databases.” This resources list, however, is relegated to an appendix and not immediately clear where to report a theft. It includes the Exlibris listserv and the RBMS Security Committee webpage, but the latter’s list of missing and stolen library materials is incomplete, sparsely updated, and many of the links are broken.

The page also mentions MissingMaterials.org, a collaboration between OCLC and RBMS that was created as a “mechanism for sharing reliable information about missing rare books and other materials at the network level.” This looks like a promising resource, but a closer look reveals that the project will be abandoned at the end of 2012. The lack of dedication toward coordination among RBMS and special collections libraries is disappointing, especially as recent cases demonstrate how librarians working together can recover lost rare items and catch thieves. Breithaupt was caught in 2000 after  “an alert Georgia college librarian realized that a Flannery O’Connor letter listed for sale on Ebay … matched a photocopy of the document Kenyon had provided him in 1993” (ALA 2003). The security guidelines mention searching local bookstores to see if thieves have tried to move the items quickly, but nothing about online auction sites  or major web marketplaces, through which thieves can easily reach a worldwide market at the click of a button.

Also, there are new challenges that come from increased internet communication, and more potential red flags for special collections professionals to look out for. Warren Lipka, one of the Transylvania University thieves, for example, used a Yahoo email account to set up a meeting with the special collections librarian, posing as an important researcher.

These free email services are attractive for individuals impersonating another, and although a Yahoo address by itself shouldn’t arouse suspicion, when taken along with other key facts—in this case, misspellings, a request to see the two most valuable items in the collection, and the “researcher’s” surprising youth and demeanor when arriving in person—it should have raised significant concern. A more useful function of the security guidelines, then, would be to provide a detailed description of how to track down stolen items using online marketplaces and other tools, a link to a centralized, frequently-updated database [2]where libraries can report items and share information, and a list of best practices to use when corresponding with researchers online and in person, including a list of things of which to be suspicious.

Another area that the security guidelines do not address is the issue of special collections thefts as they relate to the institution as a whole. In many cases it has been noted that libraries can be hesitant to report or make public thefts, due to fear of the negative publicity it can generate (McDaniel, McFarlane). Such knowledge spreading can also adversely affect funding and donations, as “potential donors might change their minds about leaving their treasures in an insecure place” (McDaniel 21).

Another potential pitfall of publicly announcing thefts is the advertisement of the monetary value of some of the items held in special collections that could inspire future thieves. Lipka and Spencer Reinhard schemed up their Transylvania University theft after learning that Audobon’s Birds of America was worth $12 million, for example (Falk). As these decisions are entirely up to the individual institution, it is not appropriate for RBMS to prescribe exactly how to handle the situation, but it would be helpful to address this conflict in the guidelines and suggest how special collections might work with the rest of the institution in order to make an appropriate response to a theft.

In other aspects of special collections security, the security guidelines very effectively identify and frame crucial security issues, but make few concrete recommendations as to how special collections libraries can overcome them. These examples are not a failure of the guidelines, but rather a demonstration of how difficult these concerns can be and a continuing need to search for solutions. One of these issues is the idea of access as it relates to security.

A core competency of special collections professionals is the ability to understand “staffing and environments that balance the needs of researchers with the security and preservation needs of (special) collections” (ACRL 2008). The RBMS security guidelines also explicitly bring up this same balance, and yet the rest of the language is almost exclusively geared towards the preservation goal. This includes requiring that researchers provide their name, address, institutional affiliation, and a photo ID in order to use materials; keeping their information indefinitely and tying it to items used; and even banning common research materials such as notebooks and “voluminous papers” from reading rooms.

Although many of these requirements are effective in curbing theft and damage to items, they nevertheless make the experience more difficult for the researchers for whom the materials are intended, and in the case of personal information, could even violate library patron privacy policies or local law without proper confidentiality in place, which may be difficult to implement. To shed further light on this concern, Traister describes the shift in special collections from a collection-centric model to a user-focused one, a “newer emphasis on promotion” that is even more important in today’s climate of shrinking budgets and libraries’ increased pressure to justify their use to the wider community. The security guidelines advocate access limitations in order to protect rare materials, but they do not consider the implications of this central shift in mission, nor do they address security issues arising due to things such as exhibitions, public events and classroom sessions held in special collections.

In earlier generations, special collections theft was not a significant problem (Wyly), but increased interest in special collections and their shift from a gated archive to a more open institution has made the issue of theft and security a crucial one. RBMS and ACRL have taken strong steps with the publication of the Guidelines Regarding Security and Theft in Special Collections, but many issues still remain problematic, as recent scholarship and actual theft cases demonstrate. Continuing to address these concerns, in particular the appropriate balance between access and security as well as finding ways to work together, both within an institution and as a larger community of special collections libraries, is the best way to ensure that our cultural heritage items will remain secure and available for future generations.


Works Cited

“ALA/RBMS Guidelines for Security and Theft in Special Collections Libraries.” Association of College and Research Libraries. 2009. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/security_theft

Brumfield, Sarah. “Presidential historian expected to plead guilty” The Guardian. 1 February 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/feedarticle/10072148

Competencies for Special Collections Professionals. Association of College and Research Libraries. 1 July 2008. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/comp4specollect

Falk, John. Majoring in Crime. Vanity Fair. (Dec. 2007)

“Kenyon College Wins $1-Million Theft Judgment.” American Libraries. American Library Association. 21 April 2003. http://www.ala.org/ala/alonline/currentnews/newsarchive/2003/april2003/kenyoncollege.cfm

Kovarsky, Joel. “Keeping It Safe, Keeping It Available: Theft Prevention In Special Collections.” Library Student Journal 2.4 (2007): 3-10.

McDaniel, Charles-Gene. “To Catch a Thief.” Change 9.2 (1977): 19-21

McFarlane, Andrew. How Thieves Target Rare Books. BBC Magazine. 21 July 2010. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-10695170

“Privacy Toolkit.” American Library Association. 5 March 2005. http://www.ala.org/offices/oif/iftoolkits/toolkitsprivacy/guidelinesfordevelopingalibraryprivacypolicy/guidelinesprivacypolicy

Rostenberg, Leona, and Madeleine Stern. “The Changing Rare Book Trade, 1950-2000.” RBM: A Journal Of Rare Books, Manuscripts, & Cultural Heritage 5.1 (2004): 11-23.

Traister, Daniel. “The Rare Book Librarian’s Day.” Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship. 1.2 (1986): 93-105.

United States v. Allen, et al. Nos. 06-5077/5079/5103/5104/5153/5154/5155/5157. February 5, 2008.

Wilkie, Everett. Correspondence quoted in Kovarsky, Joel. “Keeping It Safe, Keeping It Available: Theft Prevention In Special Collections.” Library Student Journal 2.4 (2007): 6.

Wyly. Special Collection Security: Problems, Trends and Consciousness. Library Trends. 36.1 (1987): 241-256.


[1] In the style of RBMS, I will use the terms “special collections,” to refer to libraries and other institutions housing rare books, manuscripts, archives, and other antiquarian and unique materials.

[2] This is an area where libraries could benefit from increased collaboration with antiquarian book dealers. In addition to the fact that many stolen library items will end up on the market, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers has started its own database for tracking down rare books at http://www.stolen-book.org/. Libraries are encouraged to submit items, but it appears that not many do so.

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