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Pursuing Purloined Papers
April 27, 2008 12:27 AM   Subscribe

To Catch A Thief. How a Civil War buff's chance discovery led to a sting, a raid and a victory against traffickers in stolen historical documents. Related article: Pay Dirt in Montana. And photo gallery.
posted by amyms (20 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
If a house is burgled, figuring out what's gone is usually no challenge. But major libraries and archives often have so many rare items that they haven't been able to make a proper record of each one. It's not always obvious they've been robbed even when they have been.

That's a pretty lame excuse. If one dollar - amongst thousands of others which are very nearly identical - is missing from a bank, the bank usually knows about it in pretty short order. Why can't archives do the same with unique items?

Maybe these documents - like the dollars printed by the Federal Reserve - should all sold to private collectors. Individuals who have a personal interest in them would no doubt keep better track of them than the government bureaucrats who have no personal stake.
posted by three blind mice at 1:32 AM on April 27, 2008


Why can't archives do the same with unique items?

Volume. When a library gets boxes and boxes of material from an individual donor, and has hundreds and hundreds of different donors, the time taken to catalogue them would be immense. Big libraries don't have the staff to catalogue every single letter and document they possess.

Maybe these documents - like the dollars printed by the Federal Reserve - should all sold to private collectors.

That's exactly what the thieves were doing. However, putting them in the hands of private individuals disperses collections than really belong together, and removes the material from study. Furthermore, there's no reason to believe private collectors would take any better care of them than libraries do.

The thing that annoys me most about this stuff is they way these thieves just destroy rare books, razoring out maps and illustrations they believe are saleable. This is also fairly common with private ownership as well, as dealers break down a book because they can make more selling the illustrations individually than they could get for the whole book, but it really shouldn't happen with stuff that belongs to the nation.

Also, the book referred to in the second link, The Island of Lost Maps, is a great read and well worth anyone's time.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:15 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Full speed ahead document digitizing! If these belong to the public throw them out there for everyone to see anytime. Then the people who steal them will have a hard time showing them off without worrying about someone discovering their provenance.

Google Historical Archives could be to document thieves what Google Books is to plagiarists. Really embarrassing.
posted by srboisvert at 3:21 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


Big libraries don't have the staff to catalogue every single letter and document they possess.

Then they should not possess them. They are doing the public a massive disservice, archiving documents they cannot properly control and allowing it to disappear into the hands of unscupulous buyers.

However, putting them in the hands of private individuals disperses collections than really belong together, and removes the material from study.

Um, make it a condition of sale that the buyer must pay for a certified digital copy be placed in an electronic archive before transfer. This would give the public far more access than hiring more library staff. (And would give Wikipedia a wndfall of content to draw from.)

Not enough staff you say to catalog everything? Let the library keep a portion of the revenue from everything it sells and I bet you'd see some action. Or let content hungry Google pay some cash in return for providing them copies of the archives.

Furthermore, there's no reason to believe private collectors would take any better care of them than libraries do.

Yeah, right. If you PeterMcDermott paid a few thousand dollars for a letter, I imagine you'd take pretty good care of it. I know I would. Public custodians who have no personal stake in any of it seem to me less likely to.
posted by three blind mice at 4:44 AM on April 27, 2008


When a library gets boxes and boxes of material from an individual donor, and has hundreds and hundreds of different donors, the time taken to catalogue them would be immense.

Exactly. Even if banks did receive their money in uncatalogued boxes - which they don't - they can count every bit of it automatically with high-speed machines designed for the purpose. No such technology exists for unique documents. mice would lose his bet.

Also, public repositories generally are climate-controlled, fire-resistant, flood-proof buildings. Most private dwellings fall short of one or all of those qualities. Privatization is not just a bad solution, it's not a solution at all.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:00 AM on April 27, 2008


Libraries and archives can count every bit of it with slow-speed machines that run on caffine and the quiet, desperate hope that there's =something= in the goddamn box box that can be cited for a dissertation.

Private collectors... not so much.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:29 AM on April 27, 2008 [5 favorites]


Counting is one thing. Identifying unique documents is another. With money, pieces of like denomination are interchangeable, so counting is all that you need.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:54 AM on April 27, 2008


Fascinating article—thanks for the post!

Though rare books, maps and documents are not allowed to circulate like the latest best sellers, they are not locked away in vaults, either. They are meant to be requested and studied, and those who ask to inspect them are not strip-searched after they do so.


What the fuck? Strip-searched? Why not just make sure the document is returned before you let the borrower leave? What are these people, idiots?
posted by languagehat at 6:38 AM on April 27, 2008


I've done research at both the Archives in D.C. and Archives II at College Park. At College Park, I met with one archivist who described just how much documentation they receive every year. He described it as if you took the largest football coliseum and filled it to the brim with single sheets of paper. Thats per year, and there's no way they can actually process the details of every one of those pages.

For those advocating the removal of the documents from Archives and what not, I think there's a distinct lack of realization just how much documentation there is. Its enormous. Frankly put, there's so much that it'd be impossible for either private or public industry to accurately sit down and catalog it in any rationale amount of time.

On top of that, there is the case of funding. You need only visit the Archives in D.C. and go to the microfilm room to realize that you're forced to rely on microfilm readers that would have been high tech in the 1960's (with the exception of three or so that made the jump into the technology of the early 1990's which let you print out from a screen). If you go to the microfilm room, the air is filled with the whizzing turning sound as several dozen people sit and turn microfilm by hand crank. The last time I spoke with a NARA employee, they told me Congress was going to cut more funding. Ugh.

As noted above, these papers need to be held together, they should not ever be divided up amongst collectors. Not to mention, this system would only create a needless headache as researchers would have to constantly go back and forth between the digital and hard paper collections (if following a suggestion above of digitalizing every sale). What is required is a greater respect and appreciation for the importance of the history in the documents held by these institutions.

As I researched and held papers that were simply sixty some years old, I felt an awe at being able to handle a memo that I had read about and knew was invaluable to the subject I was investigating. I would never want to deny someone else the same chance to hold it in their hands as well. Granted, I made a scanned copy, and in fact, I placed it on Wikipedia, but having that document in front of your eyes, on the table before you, is a much more powerful experience. For the same reason, people go to the Archives in the thousands every day to gaze at the Declaration of Independence, rather than simply look at a photograph of it online. We just need to teach society as a whole to appreciate what documentation we have for its historical worth over its monetary value.
posted by Atreides at 7:57 AM on April 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


Great post, thanks.
posted by m0nm0n at 8:35 AM on April 27, 2008


What Atreides said. Digitizing is all well and good for the content of a document, but there are all kinds of things that the original document can offer that doesn't transfer well. Sometimes the type of paper that the document is on, the ink color, and the smudges, the provenance of it - where it fits in the entire collection, the box that the document is in, where it sits in a stack of papers - all of that can tell you things you would never get from just a digital copy alone.
posted by gemmy at 9:10 AM on April 27, 2008


Yeah, uh, I'd really like to know where the people criticizing the libraries for the lack of documentation are expecting the billions and billions of dollars to come from for funding the man-hours and equipment to document billions and billions of books and manuscripts and art and memos and photocopies and fliers and etc etc ad infinitum. Because the government is ... not giving it! Further, it's not easy for librarians to check that all the documents are coming back in when someone in the reading room can be checking out, say, various file folders full of semi-miscellaneous docs from the Civil War era, or the 60s, or whatever, and your average file folder can have 2 docs or 60, but it depends on the folder, and again, you don't know exactly how many in each because the library doesn't have the funding to keep exact counts per folder. And even in a mid-size collection - forget about the Library of Congress - there are 10,000 folders in the archive. (That's the Labadie Collection Subject Vertical Files in the University of Michigan's Special Collections, by the way. I only know the numbers because I did a project on it. 100,000 individual documents estimated. The Spec. Coll. librarians are fully occupied keeping up with day-to-day business - they do not have the time or funding to do anything more, and they're actively trying to get grant funding pretty much ... all the time. Getting Grant Money is a librarian's second profession.)

In conclusion, give your academic librarians money or STFU.
posted by bettafish at 9:19 AM on April 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


It is highly gratifying to see librarians make with the smackdown.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:47 AM on April 27, 2008


Ah, that Smithsonian article includes the story of map dealer E. Forbes Smiley III who cut out 97 maps (worth $3 million) from rare books with X-Acto knives and smuggled them out in his clothing and/or briefcase.
posted by ericb at 10:34 AM on April 27, 2008


Regarding another map thief (Gilbert Bland) there's the book The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime.
posted by ericb at 10:43 AM on April 27, 2008


Why not just make sure the document is returned before you let the borrower leave? What are these people, idiots?

And check every page of a book to make sure none of it has been razored out? I wouldn't want to be in that line. Did you even read the article or was that part of it cut out of your version?
posted by srboisvert at 12:06 PM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


The thing that annoys me most about this stuff is they way these thieves just destroy rare books, razoring out maps and illustrations they believe are saleable.

Pfft. Amateurs razor. It's too obvious. Professionals shove dental floss in their mouths, soak it good, stretch it near the spine next to the map they want, and wait for moisture to do its work. A few minutes, a little tug, and suddenly you have a disconnected map.

Why your papers are not checked before you leave I do not know.

Why not just make sure the document is returned before you let the borrower leave? What are these people, idiots?

A lot of the thieves are employees. And documents sometimes come in bundles. Just saying.
posted by IndigoJones at 12:12 PM on April 27, 2008


Going off what IndigoJones brought up...

Why your papers are not checked before you leave I do not know.

Your papers are checked, at least at the Archives. They flip through any books you might have and look over all your print outs and what have you. If you have something with pockets, they search all the pockets. What they don't do, and this was alluded to in the article, is they don't do a strip search. So if someone managed to shove a document down their pants or shirt when no one was noticing, then that document is probably as good as gone. (BTW, you go through two levels of checking papers/bags/etc when you leave, first from the reading room, second on the way out of the building).

At Archives II, the main reading room is fairly large with several dozen large tables with enough space for four researchers to sit at with documents spread out between them. There's two desks situated at halfway points through the room where you have to go to get permission to copy/scan something (in case its top secret or too fragile), and a third desk where you pick up your requested documents or put in a submission slip for them to be pulled from the stacks. There's security situated at the only entrance in and out, who checks your items on the way in and out. The Archives in D.C. are setup similarly.

When you request something, you're essentially requesting either folders of documents or archival boxes full of documents. At Archives II, you can get about 20 to 24 archival boxes which can easily contain hundreds upon hundreds of pieces of paper. It'd be pretty much impossible short of hiring an army to check all the papers contained in either the folders or boxes before they go out, and then check again when they're returned for anything missing.

I'm sure in some cases with very valuable documents, there are tighter restrictions, etc.
posted by Atreides at 12:28 PM on April 27, 2008


So if someone managed to shove a document down their pants or shirt when no one was noticing, then that document is probably as good as gone.

Ah, memories of "Sandy" Berger walking away with copies of a classified document stuffed in his suit jacket during visits to the National Archives.
posted by ericb at 12:44 PM on April 27, 2008


Yeah, right. If you PeterMcDermott paid a few thousand dollars for a letter, I imagine you'd take pretty good care of it. I know I would. Public custodians who have no personal stake in any of it seem to me less likely to.

Didn't seem to work for Steve Wynn when he tore the hole in his Picasso, which he valued at $139 million dollars. But the reality is, most of these documents aren't actually worth anything at all individually. Should we just dump 'em in the sea?

They are doing the public a massive disservice, archiving documents they cannot properly control and allowing it to disappear into the hands of unscupulous buyers.

Funny, that's precisely what I thought you were suggesting *should* happen to them.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 5:23 PM on April 27, 2008


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