How to Steal a Document

For a long time, I have thought it would be fine and clever to write a book entitled How to Steal a Documents, as a way of communicating the challenges and problems archivists face in securing their holdings and demonstrating the often flawed ways in which the public and media understand the value of our documentary heritage. I even have thought about a suitable sequel, How to Forge a Document. These books would be tongue-in-cheek, of course. And they also would be controversial, all the better to draw attention to the problems archivists and their compatriots, librarians and museum curators, face in our contemporary world. Of course I have not tackled such a project because I know that I would become the center of an ethical debate and, perhaps, do more harm than good.

Then, again, I am not sure I really need to do this since there are other books that tread on the same path or, at least, head in the same direction. For example, consider Nancy Moses, Stolen, Smuggled, Sold: On the Hunt for Cultural Treasures (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), a collection of essays about seven cultural objects with poignant stories to be told and lessons to be learned. The book includes essays on the recovery of the Gustav Klimt portrait seized by the Nazis, the Pearl Buck typescript of The Good Earth, a Ghost Dance shirt from Wounded Knee, an audio recording of Babe Ruth on a quail hunt, a mummy of a Pharaoh, the North Carolina vellum copy of the Bill of Rights, and a plundered antiquity from the Sumerians.

Some of these essays are particularly valuable for or pertinent to archivists. For example, in the essay about the archivists who stole the Babe Ruth audio from the National Archives, Moses thinks he was “motivated by the feeling that sits at the heart of every archivist, librarian, registrar, and curator in every country in the world. All of them love the material. They are passionate about things that are old and rare” (p. 62). Woods goes on to comment on how these items possess a “magical” quality, thinking that because they get to work with these materials that “archivists and curators are some of the most contented people. . . , because they can indulge their craving for the old and rare every day” (p. 62). This might be the case, but it is more likely that this is the way they are often seen from the outside. At least I hope so. Because there are far more important reasons why people become archivists (commitments to understanding the past, accountability and transparency, a public good).

While this book is not a manual about to steal items from archives and cultural institutions, it provides insights into how easy such theft can be, the prevalence of insider theft, the thrill of the chase, and the close relationship of such theft to the collecting impulse and activity. In a concluding chapter, Moses also suggests actions and attitudes we need to develop to ensure that such cultural materials are protected (reminding us that at presence a very small portion of these materials are recovered). This collection focuses on ones that were successfully recovered, hopefully inspiring us to be more diligent in our work with them.

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