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Libraries face challenge to balance public access, security

The Boston Public Library in Copley Square.Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

Barry Landau brought cupcakes before he palmed documents from the Maryland Historical Society. Daniel Spiegelman used a dumbwaiter shaft to gain access to Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Zachary Scranton used a variation on the classic bait-and-switch to pilfer a rare book from Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center library.

And Daniel Lorello, who pocketed valuable historical documents from the New York State Archives, had perhaps the ultimate advantage: He worked there.

Their methods may have varied, but these thieves’ aims were similar: They were after maps, rare books, manuscripts, and memorabilia — the precious but often poorly guarded items that are housed in many of the country’s libraries, rare-book collections, and archives.


And while police continue to investigate how artworks by Dürer and Rembrandt went missing from the Boston Public Library — and the possibility it was an inside job — the works’ absence points to a seemingly intractable problem as archivists and librarians try to secure their collections, while also leaving them open to public study.

Perhaps most difficult to prevent are thefts by the employees themselves, as illustrated in the Lorello case. The longtime employee at the New York State Archives was sentenced to prison after admitting that he stole hundreds of documents valued at tens of thousands of dollars from the state’s collections. His scheme, which went on for years, was discovered only after a history buff saw an item Lorello had listed on eBay.

“It’s almost impossible to prevent insider theft. You have to trust someone,” said Travis McDade, curator of law rare books at the University of Illinois College of Law. “You have guys that have unlimited access, and have what they consider a good reason to steal.” Their reasons, he explained, can range from mounting debt, to a desire to study an object more closely or preserve it at home, to mere greed.


Striking a balance between access and security is “the conundrum that all are facing,” said Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, a preservation specialist at the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, who has written extensively on archival security. “Custodians have the responsibility of taking care of these materials . . . but, at the same time, they also have the responsibility of providing access to them in a safe and secure manner both to protect the items and to enhance research. It is a balancing act.”

While art theft usually grabs the headlines, theft of archival materials — everything from historical letters and maps to individual pages of books — is in many ways more insidious and harder to track. Whereas a stolen painting is a one-of-a-kind object that often leaves a blank spot on the wall, archival materials can be missing for years before someone notices they are gone.

“Libraries are good victims, because they won’t be discovered missing until someone wants to see the book or the archival document,” said McDade. “This allows the thief time to sell it and maybe it will change hands two or three more times before it’s discovered missing.”

But even when an object’s absence is discovered, it can take months to determine whether the item was stolen or simply misplaced — as still could be the case at the Boston Public Library. Such uncertainty makes many libraries hesitant to report a theft.

“Libraries used to not report these things at all,” said McDade. “They didn’t want potential donors to think they were a sieve, so they’d keep these things from the press and the authorities, and try to understand what happened in-house.”


McDade, who authored a book about Spiegelman’s dumbwaiter scheme, added that archival materials present a particularly easy target. Many of the thieves are themselves archival experts: longtime researchers who inevitably become chummy with librarians, causing staffers to become less vigilant.

“That’s why it’s hard to detect, because they’re from the population of people who go to archives,” McDade said. “You go to these locations and you spend days doing research, so you develop a relationship with them. Nine out of ten you don’t have to worry about, but then there’s that tenth.”

That was certainly the case with Barry Landau, the self-proclaimed presidential historian whom a judge sentenced in 2012 to seven years in prison for theft of historical materials estimated to be worth more than $1 million. Landau, a collector of presidential memorabilia who also admitted to having sold some of the documents, was not found out until an attentive library staffer saw Landau’s accomplice conceal a document and try to walk out.

“We can prevent the Barry Landaus with a little more assiduous defense and vigilance,” McDade said. He added that part of what makes archival materials such an attractive target is that, in addition to many libraries’ often-lax security standards, the objects themselves occupy a sort of historical and economic sweet spot. Unlike a painting, which is unique, there are often several copies of archival maps and documents. What is more, they are expensive enough to make it worth the thief’s while, but not so expensive as to attract attention.


Rembrandt’s “Self-Portrait With Plumed Cap and Lowered Sabre” (right) is an etching, Albrecht Dürer’s “Adam and Eve” (also known as “The Fall of Man”) an engraving. PRINTS COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS

“There will be a legitimate market because there are legitimate copies that are out there, and not everyone is going to know the provenance of each copy,” said McDade, adding that the market has exploded with the arrival of online auction sites like eBay.

“It gives them an almost limitless market,” he said. “Before the Internet, if you stole something you needed a reliable fence, or to find someone who doesn’t care about provenance. With the Internet all that risk goes away. You just put it online, where provenance is not as important as it is in a gallery or an antiquarian bookstore.”

Recently, many libraries have instituted best-practices standards in an attempt to secure their archives, with some going so far as installing surveillance cameras, monitoring what clothes people can wear in the reading room, and even weighing objects on scales when researchers check out. But these measures only go so far, and many experts say the most effective defense against theft is vigilant staff members who check identification, control how many objects are lent out, and have clear sightlines to the reading room.

“The best defense is a good offense,” said Daniel Hammer, deputy director of the historic New Orleans Collection and the senior cochairman of the security round table of the Society of American Archivists. “We create a research environment that’s very interactive with the staff, so at no time should there be someone accessing the material who isn’t in a relationship with a librarian.”


Following such measures might have saved Ohio’s Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center library from losing two rare books in 2008.

According to an affidavit, Zachary Scranton did not have identification when he asked to see the so-called Maxwell Code, a rare tome thought to be the first printed in Ohio. Instead of his ID, librarians held Scranton’s backpack as he looked at the book, which he stole while librarians were not looking.

When the library staff finally checked the bag, they found it stuffed with paper towels.

“So they gave him a $100,000 book, and he gave them a bag of paper towels,” said McDade. “You need to have basic protocols in place.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.