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Special Collections Security Not Always Special

Special collections in libraries can range from 20th-century business records to illuminated incunabula—books published before 1501. Due to staffing and financial limitations, these collections don’t always get the special security attention they need, according to a survey of research libraries conducted by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).

Most of the 68 ARL member libraries that responded to the survey said that they did not check belongings before patrons left the reading room. Of the one-third that said they did check, many admitted that they didn’t do so all the time. Others said that they checked patrons before they left only if they exhibited suspicious behavior or, in the words of one respondent, the “patron insists on keeping a large bag or personal item near them.”

Some research libraries didn’t even check the materials themselves carefully when users returned them. Though 81 percent reported that library employees checked manuscripts, books, and other material at the time the patron returned them, 14 percent of the respondents checked on “a limited basis.”

For example, they may only match materials to call slips rather than reviewing the physical condition of the items. Thoroughly checking every item would be “impossible” or “impractical,” some respondents said.

Staff are stretched so thin that users of materials were occasionally left alone in the special-collections reading room at slightly more than a quarter of the institutions, the survey found. A third of the libraries addressed this problem with CCTV cameras, and five said that they used security mirrors.

The vast majority of libraries did implement basic measures, however. All but two required patrons to register to use special collections, 85 percent required patrons to leave items such as coats and bags outside the reading room, and 97 percent had staff keep an eye on the reading room.

Most institutions also capped the amount of material a visitor could use at one time, either via strict number limits or on a case-by-case basis.

The survey is contained in what the ARL calls a SPEC Kit, which in this case is 126 pages of documents. The SPEC Kit also contains representative library-security documents such as request-for-materials forms, patron-registration forms, and rules for patrons to follow.