I recently read The Map Thief by Michael Blanding, a book I chose for my library’s book club. This true crime story focuses on Edward Forbes Smiley III, a rare maps dealer turned rare map thief. In short, Smiley lived above his means and later had to resort to thievery in order to maintain his standard of living. Maps were the perfect choice as Smiley not only has access, but often they were not cataloged well so the provenance of the maps was not easy to trace. He betrayed fellow map dealers and librarians at various rare book and map libraries as he sold stolen goods to the former and betrayed the latter. Over all, he admitted to stealing hundreds of maps worth over $2 million. Hundred more maps were uncovered as missing in addition, to which Smiley had once had access to some. Presented alongside Smiley’s story is the history of mapmaking.The book details how Smiley stole the maps, often by tearing maps from rare books and then folding them into his blazer pockets. He also took many loose maps from folders. In the era in which he did this, security was not high at the institutions and since many of the librarians trusted Smiley, they did not keep a close eye on him. After the thefts were uncovered, many of the libraries installed high-tech security systems, including camera’s over the research room tables. However, not all institutions can afford this kind of technology. How can these institutions, especially low-budget local historical societies, prevent similar thefts?
With that question in mind there are some methods I learned in my graduate school archive classes to deter thefts of historic materials all institutions can practice, regardless of budget (many of which were also discussed in The Map Thief after depicting how the thefts were discovered):
- Make sure all coats, jackets, blazers, etc., plus any bags (purses included) are checked before entering the reading room.
- Allow only loose leaf paper for taking notes; items can be hidden in the pages of notebooks.
- Never leave someone using historic documents unattended. Also, that staff member should not have any major distractions.
- Only bring researchers material a few folders at a time (some sources suggest only one at a time).
- Look through a researcher’s papers before they leave to ensure nothing is hidden between the pages.
- When possible, have some sort of security camera in the room.
- Make sure the reading room has no obstacles that block the staff from observing researchers.
- Ensure all materials are cataloged in detail. This will help identify an item if it is stolen.
- If money allows, create scanned or microfilm copies of all material to have on hand for both research purposes and to help identify objects within the collection.
- Also, for the sake of the documents, never allow researchers to use ink pens or markers while handling historic material. If they leak or burst, items can be damaged. Only allow pencils.
While it may be impossible to prevent all thefts, following these tips will go a long way towards helping deter it or catching a person in the act. Do you have any other suggestions? Have you ever found items missing from your library, archive, or historical society’s collection?