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NARA Tightens Security to Prevent Thefts, Mutilation

by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

Over the years, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has faced many physical and environmental threats to its holdings including fire, water, insects, and mold. We have been open about these risks and forthcoming about our efforts to combat them. However, there’s another risk to our collection: the risk of theft and intentional mutilation or destruction of our holdings. Since becoming Archivist of the United States, I have recognized this risk and have taken strong measures to deal with it.

Trevor Plante, a senior archivist at NARA, recently contacted our Office of Inspector General to report that a document—pardoning a Union soldier in the Civil War and signed by President Abraham Lincoln—appeared to have been altered.

Officials in the Office of Inspector General (OIG) obtained a full and willing written confession from a historian stating that he had changed the date on the pardon to read April 14, 1865, instead of 1864. The change to 1865 made the document appear to be one of President Lincoln's last official actions on the day he was assassinated.

Based upon the historical importance subsequently assigned to this pardon, it had gained a certain amount of fame. The historian wrote a book about it and raised his profile in the history community.

This case is unusual. The statute of limitations is expired so the researcher could not be prosecuted, but he will never again be allowed into the National Archives. However, it’s another reminder that our holdings are at risk from unconscionable acts by researchers who have sought to steal or mutilate documents that belong to the American people.

And we have not only experienced theft and damage by those from outside our agency, but also by those we trust the most: our very own staff. I moved to mitigate this real threat by instituting a new policy in our Washington, DC, and College Park, MD, facilities of searching bags being taken out by staff—including me—as we leave the building. In these facilities, researchers’ belongings are searched by research room staff and security guards when they leave both the research room and the building. This policy will be extended to other NARA facilities.

Over the past decade, several individuals have stolen documents and attempted to sell them to trustworthy collectors, or to place them for sale online. Sharp-eyed researchers familiar with those records quickly alerted us. Those individuals who stole from our holdings went to prison. Sadly, one of them was an Archives employee.

As a result of thefts, we installed video cameras in all public research rooms in Washington and College Park, as well as in most research rooms nationwide. And we strictly limit what researchers can take with them when they are in those rooms reviewing records.

In addition to these specific actions, we have elevated holdings security among our many missions. Late last year we formed a Holdings Protection Team to develop policies not only for protecting our holdings, but to educate NARA staff on how to do so. This past fall, the team took over full responsibility for the movement of records between NARA facilities and affiliated agencies for exhibit, loan, or permanent storage. They also performed site inspections at many NARA facilities to support and foster holdings protection and to monitor policy compliance. The team works closely with OIG staff, which has demonstrated expertise in investigating and recovering lost or stolen holdings. Through their energies, many records and artifacts have been recovered, and thieves have been successfully prosecuted.

The OIG’s own Archival Recovery Team (ART) can assist those who think they may be in possession of a lost or stolen document or have knowledge of others who possess or are attempting to sell them. The ART publicizes items that have been lost or stolen, and asks citizens to contact them if they have seen any of them. These items are then listed online at http://www.archives.gov/research/recover/ and its Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/archivalrecoveryteam.

We are not alone in facing risks to our collections. Officials from both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution joined NARA to discuss archival theft and measures to prevent it. This challenge faces many institutions charged with preserving our heritage, and their needs to balance access to and protection of their holdings.

I take theft and mutilation of documents very seriously, and the security of our holdings is my highest priority. Unfortunately, some theft is perpetrated by employees, and that is especially disheartening. These individuals have lost sight of their responsibilities as caretakers.

I know the Organization of American Historians and its members share our concern about the theft and mutilation of priceless documents, and I ask your help by reporting instances in which it appears that holdings might have been stolen from the National Archives. To report a document you believe is lost or stolen from NARA holdings, please contact us at MissingDocuments@nara.gov, or call 1-800-786-2551. You may also write to: Missing Documents, Office of the Inspector General, National Archives and Records Administration, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740.


About the Archivist

David S. Ferriero is the 10th Archivist of the United States. Prior to his confirmation on November 6, 2009, Ferriero served as the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries.