The Coalition Column

Hundreds of Items Missing from the National Archives

AHA Staff, January 2005

Reports released through the Freedom of Information Act to media organizations and the National Coalition for History reveal that the National Archives is missing hundreds of historic documents and photos from its various collections. Many items are suspected to have been stolen. The reports (by the archives’ inspector general) show that while the problem is not pervasive, it is a cause for concern; a solution requires the diligent cooperation of NARA employees, historians and scholars, and the public.

At present NARA has no strict registration system for most of the 10 billion items held in regional facilities, presidential libraries, and other records repositories around the country. It is not always obvious when materials have been lost, stolen, or misplaced. Investigative reports classify some of the documents that cannot be accounted for as simply "missing."
While any researcher making use of a NARA collection could steal documents, security procedures in place at archives facilities serve as a deterrent. Internal theft by NARA employees also is documented as a problem. In its most publicized case, a cache of presidential pardons and other materials valued at $100,000 was stolen by an archives employee who had been with NARA for 16 years. (He was convicted and sentenced in July 2002 to 21 months in federal prison.) This incident led to an overhaul of security procedures, including installing cameras and recording equipment in the research rooms, background investigation of volunteers working with original records and artifacts, and the development of a pilot program with the University of Maryland on the feasibility of electronic tracking.

Paul Brachfeld, NARA's inspector general, believes that the remedy is broad vigilance in the manuscript market. Last March, NARA initiated an awareness program. Employees and researchers have been asked to monitor auctions and to look out for stolen documents on the growing number of Internet auction sites.

For over a year and a half National Coalition for History staff has also been informally monitoring several of the largest Internet auction houses for stolen documents. Already, materials allegedly pilfered from presidential libraries and other NARA repositories, state archives, and international collections have been identified and referred to Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security officials for action.

In an effort to more systematically address this problem, the National Coalition for History has been awarded a grant from NARA to regularly track Internet and other auctions of manuscript materials.