Tuesday, March 13, 2018

This is Why Archives Have So Many Rules

From the National Archives, this brief video reports on the discovery of stolen Lincoln documents about to go up for auction, and how they were returned to the National Archives:


Most thefts from archives do not end so happily. Ebay is full of historical documents and signatures of unknown provenance. Most of these are perfectly legitimate. If Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to some private individual, that letter would be private property, and while we might prefer to see it donated to some archive, it is the owner's right to sell it. However, a government document that Lincoln signed would probably remain in the files of the office which received it, until at some point being transferred to the National Archives. Unfortunately, there is a market for historical signatures, and archival documents get stolen far too often, only to reappear later for sale.

Some dealers of possibly stolen documents avoid detection by literally cutting off the signature from the original. Often the signature will then be framed, along with a photograph of the person and perhaps some associated artifacts or folderol. Ebay is full of such framed autographs of famous men:

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Why would anyone cut apart a document signed by Abraham Lincoln?
It is not only documents bearing the signatures of the famous and infamous that get spirited away from archives. Every archivist knows that the occasional patron will sometimes take the banalest documents home. Often it seems to be a matter of convenience to the person who purloins the document--"Hey, I can slip this into my notebook and finish transcribing at home!" Sometimes a researcher feels a connection to a historical figure or even ownership of a particular topic. Sometimes a document can even be accidentally gathered up with researchers own notes.

This is why most archives have strict rules for users, which typically include not bringing bags or briefcases into the reading area (usually there is a locker near the door for personal effects), limiting or prohibiting personal notebooks or folders, and working in the open in the presence of an archivist. It can all seem like overkill when you are looking at the meeting minutes of the County Sewer Commission, but archivists have their reasons.

[Thanks to my boss, Washinton State Archivist Steve Excell, for sharing the video with his staff.]