Prologue Magazine

A Culture of Vigilance

Fall 2011, Vol. 43, No. 3

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States


This summer, a federal grand jury in Baltimore indicted two men for conspiring to steal and sell historical documents from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, and two other institutions.

The documents—reading copies of seven of FDR's speeches—have all been recovered, but that doesn't do much to calm my outrage over the theft of important documents that belong to the American people.

Dealing with theft is not new to me.

Throughout my career of more than 40 years in institutions charged with protecting valuable books, documents, and artifacts, I have seen many instances of theft and damage to these pieces of history.

During those years, I have fought hard—as I have since I became Archivist—for effective protection for priceless holdings.

When I became Archivist in late 2009, NARA had just experienced the case of a former Clinton administration official removing documents from the Archives by hiding them in his socks. And we still haven't found the back-up computer hard drive from the Clinton White House with personal information about thousands of people.

Recently, we have been dealing with two cases of theft. One involves a long-time NARA staffer and expert in our film and video collection, who allegedly removed a significant number of materials from NARA. The other involves presidential memorabilia collector Barry Landau and his assistant, who face federal charges of stealing documents, including the Roosevelt speeches, from a number of institutions.

And when I came to the Archives, I had a surprise.

This is the first institution I've worked for that did not have exit searches. I have changed that. Now, security officers check all bags—including staff's, and including mine—at both our Washington, D.C., and College Park, Maryland, facilities. This routine practice will eventually be extended to all 44 of our locations.

The theft of the FDR documents was bad enough, but other losses since I became Archivist have convinced me that we let our guard down too often. Stronger measures are needed and are being prepared and implemented.

Within NARA, protecting our holdings is generally the work of two offices: the Holdings Protection Team (HPT) and the Inspector General's Archival Recovery Team (ART).

Internally, our HPT educates staff not only about risks of theft, but also about everyday risks in the workplace. We learn how a document could be taken out of an Archives facility or the Archives' custody. HPT members visit NARA locations to make sure there is adequate security to detect, deter, and prevent theft:

They inspect mailrooms to determine if adequate safeguards exist to prevent theft. They go on-site where renovations are under way or new facilities are being constructed to ensure that safeguards against theft are built into the structures. They manage the movement from one location to another of high-value, important documents that thieves might target. And they train research room staff on personal skills needed to approach and deal with individuals suspected of stealing or planning to steal documents.

Now, we are developing plans for heightened security in all research rooms. And the team is upgrading its centralized registry of individuals banned from NARA facilities to a secure directory of those with research cards, what facilities they visit, and what documents they ask for.

Despite all this, sometimes a document is stolen. That's when the Inspector General's ART comes into the picture.

ART has a toll free number (1-800-786-2551) you can call if you see a document either in person or online that you think may have been stolen from NARA. Information on missing documents can also be found at

In some cases, documents may be missing because of administrative laxness or misfiling. But, increasingly, when missing documents are found, they are in the possession of a former trusted employee.

This is a painful subject and difficult for some to understand. It is what saddens and angers me the most—that those entrusted with protecting our holdings are sometimes also a threat to those holdings.

We don't intend to create a culture of suspicion in NARA, but rather a culture of vigilance. It is vital for staff to alert their managers, the HPT, or the ART when they see employees, contractors, or volunteers violating our security rules.

If the Inspector General's office determines that a theft occurred, it works with the Justice Department toward potential prosecution. A few years ago, a staff member went to prison for stealing and trying to sell NARA documents on the Internet. Several of ART's investigations have paid off, and there are two major ones now under way.

The risk of theft will always exist, and it requires our staff to walk a fine line between providing access to priceless holdings while protecting them from theft or damage. My hat is off to them for doing this; I'm proud of them.

The records in our holdings are important, and we must all be vigilant —more vigilant than ever before—in identifying others that belong at NARA. That is essential not only for us at the Archives but also for everyone who has a respect for history.

Join the Archivist at his own blog and visit the National Archives website.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.