Skip to content

Special Protection for Special Collections

Every cultural institution or business possesses what can be referred to as "archival collections." These collections may include everything from books and music scores to medical records and sales receipts. In short, these archives house whatever the organization needs to keep safe for long periods of time. Keeping this material safe from both a security and preservation standpoint can be difficult, especially when the material must be made accessible regularly to an assortment of people with varying interests, ranging from serious academic research to mild curiosity.

Ensuring that the material is accessible for those who need to consult it and keeping it safe are difficult objectives to reconcile. It has been said that museum registrars or archivists--whose primary job is chronicling and preserving the collections--would prefer to catalogue, preserve, or stabilize the items, and then store away the material, never to be touched again. Conversely, the museum curator or circulation manager--whose primary job is circulating and making material available for public consumption--might relish the idea of having the object seen or used by as many people as possible. Every museum operates with these inherent conflicts of interest.

Of course, not all records or archival materials are of equal quality. It is true that banks and businesses are able to transfer paper records to more durable and compact forms such as database or digital image storage, and circulation libraries can often keep multiple copies of the same document in a variety of media, including hardback and computerized editions of books, with little variation from the original. For museums and libraries that house precious and unique collections, however, reproductions are rarely equal to originals in quality and scholarly interest. For example, regardless of how many sketches, photos, or translations are made of the Rosetta Stone, scholars and researchers must still use the original for raw research.

This article will focus on unique, intrinsically valuable, and irreplaceable archival collections of items like the Rosetta Stone, which are never designed to leave the museums or libraries that house them. In public or private circulating libraries such collections are usually referred to as special collections, rare books, or the study collection, differentiating them from the general circulating items in the collection. In museums and other such institutions, these collections may also be referred to as research archives. These collections can include books, papers, and other material that is not immediately available to the general public. Access to these collections is usually restricted and may require that special arrangements be made before viewing. Assessing the threats and implementing effective countermeasures is an ongoing challenge for any institution with these collections.


While daring museum heists get the most attention, the greater risk is posed by the insider. Staff members have access to the objects, and they know and appreciate their value. A number of years ago, for example, a notebook was stolen from the Titanic display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. The item was recovered within three days, and the thief turned out to be a security guard who had been on duty in the vicinity of the exhibit. In another example, the head of the Wisconsin Historical Society was caught stealing items from the society's collections. Further investigations revealed that these thefts had been occurring for several years.

Perhaps a museum or library's greatest fear is that a visiting scholar, temporary faculty member, or interim researcher will enter a facility and abscond with priceless materials. In 2003, for example, a scholar was caught stealing items from an archival collection in Buenos Aires. The scholar was well known in his field and had been visiting institutions for years. After many years of reputable research, the scholar developed financial problems and began stealing items and selling them to pay his personal debts.

In another well-known case, Stephen Blumberg, a book lover with a history of mental illness, was convicted of stealing more than $20 million worth of rare books and manuscripts. Blumberg was convicted in the early 1990s and was sentenced to five years in prison with a $200,000 fine. He had successfully stolen materials from more than 140 universities in 45 U.S. states and Canada.

Motive. The motive in archival collection thefts is often the same as the motive for any theft: the thief hopes to sell off the items for money. International law is making it much more difficult for thieves to sell stolen works on the black market and the more rare the item involved, the less likely the thief can sell it for a profit in an open venue. However, there are still many cases that appear to involve a "theft on demand," where items seem to be stolen for sale to a specific individual. This type of threat is most often suspected if, for example, a museum case is broken into and only three of the 10 items in the case are stolen. Presumably, a casual thief would steal everything in the case.

It is also important to note that the value of a rare book is not always based solely on its rarity. Often books are worth a lot of money because in addition to being rare, they contain gold-plated covers, jewel-encrusted bindings, silver foil pages, or other valuable features. However, it is still true that some books are valuable simply because they are unique. A good example of this is the 1641 "Adultery Bible," which is an edition that published the Seventh Commandment as, "Thou shalt commit adultery," leaving out the crucial "not" caveat of the directive. Few copies of the book exist, and its printing foible has made it a valuable collectible.

Other books are valuable because they are autographed by the author. The research archive of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago (the author's institution) has a large number of books bearing the founder's hand-signed bookplate. These books were once in the general circulation, but they were removed from the public venue when several of the signed bookplates were discovered missing. The books are now locked in a bookshelf in the museum director's personal study.

Academic motivation. Some ancient artifacts are important because of their academic, not monetary, value. For example, the bevel-rimmed bowl can be thought of as the Tupperware of Ancient Mesopotamia. The bowl is of a distinctive shape, and it shows up in every archeological site for this particular ancient era. It is very common to find stacks of these bowls in tombs or broken in ancient garbage mounds. The bowls were possibly used to distribute workmen's daily rations. After they were used, they were tossed out like modern takeout containers.

Because these items are fairly common, archaeological museums often do not feel it necessary to put more than one on display. However, if someone is doing research on the archaeological period in which these bowls were common, he or she may want to see a wide range of bevel-rimmed bowls. These items have a fairly small monetary value, but they can hold academic value to a scholar.

Similarly, in the cuneiform script there are thousands of economic texts, ranging in size from two-inches square to around eight by ten inches. These can be compared to a modern sales receipt. But the age of these ancient "receipts" and the information they contain make them very valuable to scholars.

Another common motive appears to be the scholar's personal interest in the item. Scholars take their research topics very seriously, and they can begin to feel proprietary toward the subjects of their research. Thefts can be made to prevent other people from getting and using the scholar's information or from disproving the scholar's theories. About 10 years ago, several research institutions were victimized by a man who was determined to steal pages from every copy of a book that disproved his theory on an abstruse point of literary criticism. He had stolen the relevant pages from some 12 copies of the 20 or so existing books before he was caught. Only a few of the 12 stolen pages made it back to their owners.

Political motivation. Sometimes the motivation for a theft is political. These thefts often involve intrinsically valuable, cherished, or emotionally charged items that can be used to make a statement. For example, during the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics, Edvard Munch's painting The Scream was stolen from the Oslo museum and held for ransom by several people with ties to an anti-abortion group.

Sometimes thieves want to take the institution down a notch or to point out defects in alarm systems or procedures. Last year, for example, items were stolen from the Whitworth Art Gallery in the United Kingdom. The items were found left in a safe location within three days of the theft, with a note saying that the heist had been done "to highlight the woeful security at your institution."

In some cases, thefts are simply crimes of opportunity that were not strongly motivated. In such cases, poor record keeping or sheer laziness may make it easy for persons who borrow materials to keep them, resulting in a theft. If a professor dies or is fired, loaned items that were in his or her possession at the time, such as rare books, might never be returned, and if no records indicate that the professor was the last person to take them out, there may be no way to track them down by the time anyone realizes that they are missing.


What can an institution do? Obviously, good record keeping is one important preventive measure. Another is keeping firm control over reading rooms and research areas; this is particularly important because these rooms are typically the areas where people are in closest contact with the objects. Control can be exercised in various ways, including by checking credentials, limiting what can be brought in by the scholar, restricting what items can be viewed at one time, using antitheft devices and markings, and implementing good access controls, surveillance, alarms, guard patrols, and maintenance.


One important step in protecting collections is to thoroughly document the contents. Many reporting agencies, including the FBI and Interpol, request color photos as documentation for lost or stolen objects. Therefore, if possible, each item in a collection should be photographed, although doing so may not be feasible in extensive collections. When documenting rare books, security personnel should make sure that any and all distinguishing features are noted in the records, including foxing marks (water or mold damage to pages), font or print oddities (such as a page being off-center by a quarter of an inch), or any missing or duplicated pages.


Before an institution grants access to special collections, it must verify the researcher's credentials. To gain access to Harvard library's special collection, Stephen Blumberg--a high school graduate with no academic credentials--used a stolen identification card that identified him as Matthew McGue, a professor at the University of Minnesota. Because Harvard officials failed to verify his credentials, Blumberg was allowed unrestricted access to some of the university's most valuable collections.

Some research institutions require a letter of recommendation or other documentation before allowing researchers access to the collections. The Oriental Institute Museum requires that either the library staff or a university faculty member personally know the researcher. Prospective researchers must contact the institute prior to being granted access. The institute will then contact the researcher's sponsoring faculty member to verify the researcher's identity and intentions.

Access to the special collections at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., is limited to those with a Ph.D. or equivalent degree or to graduate students writing a Ph.D. thesis. The prospective researcher must apply for a reader's card by writing a letter of application and sending two letters of reference to the library.

Carry-in controls. Most institutions carefully control the research space, and many special-collections libraries limit a reader to pencil and paper--forbidding any ink implements, which could damage the materials. Many institutions also put restrictions on the size and type of notepads and notebooks that can be brought in, and they do not allow outside books, briefcases, large bags, or packages.

While those restrictions are good, they will not protect against many of the tools favored by book and page thieves who remove pages from books to sell individually. These tools are quite small and can easily be smuggled into a research space. For example, it is easy to extract individual pages from a book by tearing along the edge of a metal or plastic ruler, or by cutting them with an X-Acto knife. Thieves also use the "wet string" method, in which a foot-long piece of cotton twine is soaked in the mouth and then placed inside the book to dampen the edge of the page. Once the page is damp it can easily be torn from the book.

To limit a thief's opportunities for committing these acts, it would be ideal to have a staff member present at all times in the research areas. However, this may not be feasible for institutions with small staffs. In such cases, strategically placed CCTV cameras can help to supplement staff members (more on CCTV later).

It is also important to check all materials after use for signs of damage or theft. Often it is easy to tell if a page has been removed from a book by examining the spine at both ends for signs of moisture or obvious missing pages. If the pages of the book are thick, it is easier to tell when a page has been removed. Flipping through each book after use can also reveal missing pages.

Item view limits.

Researchers should also be limited in the number of items available to them at any given time. If someone wants to see multiple bevel-rimmed bowls, the institution should not allow that person to have too many at once. The greater the number of items lying around, the greater the chance that a piece will go astray. If necessary, staff should reserve one or two items from day to day that the researcher may want to see again, but they should not keep adding to the amount of material a researcher has. The researcher should have to return some of the already-provided materials before being given new items.

Copy restrictions.

To further protect the collections, institutions should not allow researchers to reproduce materials by themselves. Library or museum staff should perform all reproductions. Rare books can be damaged if reproduced improperly, and controlling the reproduction process can protect against visitors breaking or otherwise injuring the book spine by smashing the book flat against the glass plate of the copier. Moreover, if the institution limits all photography to staff members, there is less risk of damage to the object due to excessive use of flash equipment or improper handling.

Antitheft devices.

Virtually all libraries use magnetic antitheft devices in their general collections, which are pieces of metal glued or hidden inside a book set to trigger readers located at building exit points. Tattle-tape strips are the most popular metallic detection method. They are composed of a thin piece of magnetized metal stuck between two pages of a book or document near the binding. These strips can also be placed within the spine of the book, between the bound page's edge and the cover hinge, making them difficult to remove. Metallic foil plates are another example of this type of device. These plates are typically three by five inches and are affixed inside the front cover of the book. Like the tattle tape, if a metal plate is taken too close to a detector, it will activate the sensor. But because these methods are fairly long-lasting and their installation can be invasive, neither of these options is recommended for use in special collections.

One high-tech antitheft device that can be magnetized to trigger sensors and can be noninvasive is the microdot. The dots--which measure less than one third the size of the eraser at the end of a pencil--are inconspicuously affixed to an object or book with adhesive that is safe to use on virtually all artifacts and other rare objects. These devices differ from tattle tape and magnetic plates because they have a "smart" component: they can be encoded with tracking and inventory data. The information on the dot is read using a hand-held reader.

Microdots can cost in excess of several dollars per dot, however, which makes the technology impractical for large collections. In addition, some conservators do not recommend that they be used with extremely rare or priceless artifacts that can be easily damaged. Although the manufacturer guarantees that the adhesive used on the microdots is reversible and will not cause damage, curators are often reluctant to place any foreign materials on extremely delicate materials such as very old books. They are, therefore, best used with high-value items that are not particularly porous, like a cement vase.

Since many special-collection curators are reluctant to use irreversible methods of book marking such as tattle tape, bookplates, or impressed owner's seals, more ingenious but highly individual methods of marking a volume can be employed. For example, some libraries will fill in the first capital O in pencil on selected pages, or write a word or a registration number unobtrusively in a location known only to the library personnel. While these methods do not have the advantage of setting off an alarm when an attempt to remove the item is made, they will serve as documentation that can aid in recovery efforts later if the item has been taken. All such markings must, of course, be recorded.

Access control.

Security professionals and library and museum staff should operate under the assumption that nothing is theft-proof. But they should implement a reasonable level of security that is feasible and cost-effective. The Oriental Institute uses a combination of locks, motion-activated CCTV cameras, alarms, and an around-the-clock guard force.

Lock and access control systems are a must. For storage of special collections, however, mechanical lock systems may not be ideal because such systems do not document who accessed a particular area or when the access occurred. Special collections should be protected by a system that records the identification of the persons gaining access, what door they used, and what time they entered the restricted area. Each user should have a unique code for access.

For example, the Oriental Institute uses an electronic key system that records each time restricted areas are accessed. The information is housed in a database that has information dating back to the system's installation six years ago.

When deciding on an access control system, it is important to choose a system with adequate storage capacity so that when theft or damage of an object is discovered, which may be long after the incident occurred, the historical access record will still exist and can be reviewed to determine who had access during the period in question. To prevent lost or stolen cards or keys from being used by unauthorized personnel, security should be able to remove users from the access control system instantly.

The institute has considered installing biometric devices at several vulnerable entrances, but has not been able to find a system that can withstand the freezing Chicago winters and hot and humid summers. Instead, these entrances are monitored around the clock by security guards using motion-activated CCTV and alarms.


Museum personnel are often not available to monitor reading rooms and storage areas where close contact with items occurs. These areas should in those cases be monitored by camera systems that record activities for later review.

Choosing a system with a substantial storage capacity for saving footage is essential. If an item is damaged or stolen, this recorded footage can be integral in identifying suspects. VHS systems are rapidly becoming outdated, and using them to store a large amount of information is difficult. Digital systems are preferable because they have the ability to store a large amount of data in a very compact form for an extended period of time, and they can offer better resolution with little image deterioration. In larger institutions, cameras supplement, but do not take the place of, guard patrols. Although not ideal, CCTV cameras can also be used at small institutions with limited resources in lieu of an around-the-clock guard presence.


Alarms form another important aspect of an overall security program for archival collections. Entry alarms on vault or storage doors are essential. It is also advisable to include motion-detection alarms inside the vault to detect any movement after hours. In high-security storage locations, the system should be set up to detect an unauthorized presence before the intruder has taken ten steps.

Security officers.

The best alarm system in the world is dependent on somebody being present to monitor and respond to it. Therefore, an around-the-clock, on-site staff presence is highly recommended. Often institutions--particularly small institutions--will not have personnel on site after hours, preferring to use CCTV and alarm systems to protect the collections instead.

Without on-site monitoring, however, response time increases dramatically. The problem is exacerbated in rural settings, because the nearest police station can be many miles away from the museum. Even for facilities located in an urban area, nearby police and fire services can take a significant amount of time to respond.

The Oriental Institute is part of the University of Chicago, but its security is now independent of the university's public safety department. Before the Oriental Institute established an around-the-clock security staff, it was estimated that it took University of Chicago Police about ten minutes to respond to an alarm. Once the police arrived, they were required to contact the institute's curator to deactivate the alarms and check that the collections were in place and unharmed. It typically took between one-half hour to an hour for the curator to arrive on site, and then more time to complete the entire process and verify that the collections were safe. The institute now has several guards monitoring the facility after hours, responding to all suspicious CCTV images and alarms.

Incentives. Motivated and educated staff members are also vital in preventing theft. A museum professional from the former Soviet Union who visited the author's institution recounted the dedication of his security force during the chaos and devastation resulting from the breakup of the country in the early 1990s. Composed of little more than retired women with a propensity for knitting during slow times, the guard force was not what would typically be considered professional. But despite the disorder that surrounded them, the women reported for work every day. One day a thief, attempting to take advantage of the confusion and limited staff, decided to steal a painting from the gallery. After witnessing the attempted theft, one of the women went after the thief with her knitting needles, causing him to drop the painting and run. While it may not be advisable to arm guards with knitting needles, instilling a sense of ownership and motivation within employees can often make the difference between an attempted theft and a successful one.

At the Oriental Institute, the museum staff is motivated using incentives such as pizza parties. Other institutions use extra days off, "You've Done Well" certificates, and gift certificates to keep employees happy. Such incentives can help instill among security staff a sense of community and responsibility to the museum.

Background checks. Before hiring a new employee or volunteer, it is highly recommended that all museums and libraries perform background checks. These checks should include searches for theft, fraud, or felony convictions. Also, it is important to note that many thieves use aliases. Because background checks at institutions have been historically lax, thieves can often use the same alias over and over again. In one case, the FBI reported that a thief was able to use the same alias for more than 20 years before being caught.


Although it may seem obvious, systems that are not working properly or are not operational are not useful. Too many false alarms or noisy distractions can prompt untrained employees to unplug or dismantle units. Regular maintenance is important to ensure that systems are functioning as intended. At an archaeological site in Pompeii in 2003, for example, a CCTV camera was located near an area where a theft occurred. Unfortunately, the camera was inoperative and no record of the theft was documented.

Policy enforcement.

One key to preventing theft and damage to items is to ensure that policies are consistently followed and enforced. If security determines that it is necessary to have two people present to access a storage vault, security must ensure that two people are always there. If the policy requires that all staff must be out of the building by 10 p.m., then no one should be working until midnight. For example, the Oriental Institute will not allow anyone in the building after midnight, and security guards strictly enforce this rule and usher out any faculty member who may have decided to stay beyond the time limit.

If bags must be checked at entrances, the policy must be applied to every bag every time. Inconsistent implementation of policies creates resentment, reducing support for security measures. It also creates opportunities for thieves.

Adhering to stringent rules may be fairly annoying for those people who have been granted privileges in the past or feel a sense of entitlement because of their position at the institution, but consistency is the only way to ensure that security procedures are working to their fullest capability. The author considers it helpful to constantly emphasize that the rules are for the benefit of everyone because they seek to ensure that the research materials will be preserved.


Improving the chances that a stolen item will be recovered is almost as important as preventing its theft. And reporting all thefts or malicious damage promptly is a vital step in the recovery process. Museum and library directors are sometimes reluctant to report thefts, fearing that the news will reflect badly on their institutions. However, an unreported lost or stolen item has very little chance of being recovered.

Data backup.

It is also important to back up data whenever possible. The Oriental Institute houses dictionary projects for three ancient languages: Hittite, Akkadian, and Demotic Egyptian. In each case, backup copies of raw data are stored off site so that the dictionaries could be rewritten in the event of fire or theft.

At the very least, libraries and museums should make sure that more than one copy of computer records exists and that a registration card system is backed up on computer or by photograph. This method of keeping complete copies is helpful for combating one of the latest, and strangely ingenious frauds: provenance planting. This crime involves criminals selling fakes to museums and attempting to convince others of the fake item's authenticity by planting provenance records of these objects in another museum's catalog collection.

Proving an object belongs to the institution is also a key factor in its recovery. There is an entire warehouse full of Stephen Blumberg's loot that is awaiting proof of ownership before it is returned, for example. In February FBI agents devoted to solving art thefts declared that institutions with CCTV systems and adequate records were most likely to have their items returned to them.

Museums and other historical repositories face a never-ending challenge of protecting their charges from theft and harm at the same time that they must grant access to them. There is no shortcut to the security solution. But by applying policies and technology consistently, the stewards of special collections can increase the likelihood that today's treasures will be around for tomorrow's scholars.

Margaret Schröeder is head of security at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.