Prologue Magazine

Increased Security for America’s Records

Spring 2011, Vol. 43, No. 1

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States


Over the years, the National Archives has faced many physical and environmental threats to its holdings. These include fire, water, insects, and mold. We have been open and forthcoming about these risks and about our efforts to combat them.

However, there's another risk to our collection—the risk of theft and intentional mutilation or destruction of our holdings. I take these risks very seriously and have taken strong measures to deal with them.

It was recently discovered that the pardon of a Union soldier in the Civil War, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, was altered.

Our Inspector General's investigators obtained a written confession from an amateur historian that he had changed the date on the pardon to read April 14, 1865, instead of April 14, 1864. This change to 1865 made the document appear to be one of Lincoln's last official actions on the day he was assassinated.

[For more details on the case, see the press release.]

This case is unusual, but it's another reminder that our holdings are at risk from unconscionable acts by researchers who seek to steal or mutilate the documents that belong to the American people.

And we have not only experienced theft and damage by those from outside our agency, but also by those we trust the most, our very own staff. Unfortunately, some theft is perpetrated by employees, and that is especially disheartening. These individuals have lost sight of their responsibilities as caretakers.

We are not alone in facing risks to our collections. Every institution charged with preserving our heritage—museums, libraries, archives, and others—balances access to and protection of its holdings every day.

I have moved to mitigate this real threat by instituting a new policy in our Washington, D.C., and College Park, Maryland, buildings of searching bags being taken out by staff—including me—as we leave the building. This policy will be extended to other locations.

We have installed video cameras to monitor all public research areas in all our research rooms in Washington and College Park and most research rooms nationwide. And we strictly limit what researchers can take with them into these rooms.

In Washington and College Park, researchers' belongings are searched by both research room staff and security guards when they exit the research room and the building, respectively. This practice will be extended to other NARA facilities.

Over the past decade, several individuals have stolen documents and put them up for sale on the Internet or attempted to sell them to trustworthy collectors. Sharp-eyed researchers who had used these records recognized them and alerted us. Those individuals who stole from our holdings went to prison. Sadly, one of them was an Archives employee.

In addition to these specific actions, we have elevated holdings security among our many missions.

Late last year, we formed a Holdings Protection Team to develop policies for protecting our holdings and to educate staff on how to do so. It has also performed site inspections at many of our facilities nationwide to support and foster holdings protection and to monitor compliance with policy.

The team works closely with our Inspector General's staff, which has demonstrated expertise in investigating and recovering lost or stolen holdings. Through the IG's work, many records and artifacts have been recovered, and thieves have been successfully prosecuted.

The IG's own Archival Recovery Team (ART) can assist those who think they may be in possession of a lost or stolen document or have knowledge of others who have some or are attempting to sell them. The ART publicizes items that have been lost or stolen and asks citizens to contact them if they have seen any of them; these items are listed on its web site and its Facebook page.

To report a document you believe is lost or stolen from the Archives, write to Missing Documents, Office of the Inspector General, National Archives and Records Administration, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001; e-mail Or call 301-837-3500 or 1-800-786-2551.

The security of our holdings is my highest priority. Please help me and the staff protect and preserve the story of our democracy.

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.