Newspaper article Roll Call

Stealing History ; Document Thefts Prompt Increase in Archives' Security

Newspaper article Roll Call

Stealing History ; Document Thefts Prompt Increase in Archives' Security

Article excerpt

A researcher approached the librarian's desk with a box of doughnuts and a list of collections he wished to review. He looked through several items, including a land grant that was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, a document valued at more than $100,000.

Later that day, the police confiscated that land grant along with 59 other historical documents that were stored inside a computer bag and locked in a museum locker. Barry Landau and his co-conspirator, Jason Savedoff, were found guilty of the thefts, and Landau was sentenced a few weeks ago.

In the wake of this case and a handful of other similar incidents during the past several years, archival institutions are beefing up security to ensure that priceless documents and rare books remain secure but still available to the public.

"The best defense is an integrated response," said Paul Brachfeld, inspector general of the National Archives who has handled high-profile theft cases during his tenure.

Brachfeld wrote the report that outlined the misdeeds of President Bill Clinton's former national security adviser, Sandy Berger, who stashed classified documents related to the 9/11 investigation under a trailer after removing them from the National Archives. (Berger subsequently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information.)

Brachfeld was also part of the investigation that brought well- known presidential memorabilia collector Landau to justice. Landau hid documents in the pocket of his sport jacket, which was specifically tailored to hide the documents.

Among the thousands of documents stolen by Landau from collections up and down the East Coast were copies of FDR's inauguration speeches (from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in New York, an affiliate of the National Archives) that had the president's handwritten notes and corrections on them.

"We caught him with 60 of our documents and 19 from other institutions," said Pat Anderson, director of publications and library services at the Maryland Historical Society, where Landau and Savedoff were caught.

Anderson would talk about some of the changes made in response to the thefts, but she didn't want to get too specific, for fear of giving away secrets that future thieves might take advantage of.

But one change is pretty obvious.

"We no longer allow jackets in the reading room," Anderson said.

The Best Defense

Brachfeld said there is a three-step process to protect documents, and it starts with identification.

"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. …

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