Last night, Eric Wittenberg put a post up on his blog about the most recent case of an archivist getting pinched for stealing (and then selling) historic documents. In this case, an New York employee is charged with stealing several hundred documents – including the Davy Crockett almanacs, a Poor Richard’s Almanac, and an 1823 letter written by US Vice President John C. Calhoun. Authorities found some 400 items in his home, and some have already been sold through eBay.
Reading this made me think of the past couple of similar stories – researchers/archivists at the National Archives stealing and selling items, other state facilities, and so on. Usually, they seem to get caught either by the oft-described “alert history buff” seeing a questionable item on eBay (“Um, why does Joe Schmoe of Possum Hollow, Kentucky have George Washington’s commission in the Continental Army in his possession?”) or someone questions the propriety of a private sale.
Such thefts are thefts from each of us. These documents and items are sacred possessions of the American people. They are our history, they are Americana. Folks who get convicted of these thefts should be treated no less harshly than, say, some bozo who would cause damage to the Declaration of Independence. They should see the inside of a prison, and spend a few years being the toy of some 7-foot weightlifting lifer name Bubba.
Tough if that sounds harsh. These thefts of our history are inexcusable. Draw and quarter them, and shoot the pieces. These items are retained by the public trust so that the people – you and I – can go and see them. No one individual should have the audacity to stick them in their socks, take them home, and – here’s the really stupid part I guess – put them up on eBay or sell them through another venue.
When someone takes a shot at the White House, for example, they get thrown to the ground and get a boot in the back of their head. They don’t walk away, they’re dragged. Stealing a part of our history is no less hienous.
Thankfully, most repositories are tightening security because of the past actions of these low-lifes. It used to be that nearly any pre-approved individual could go into any of these places and literally hold history in their hands. Want to hold a Civil War soldier’s diary in your fingers? Just go to the US Army History and Education Center (formerly MHI) at Carlisle, Pa. Or Revolutionary War documents? Same thing. But now, thankfully, many documents are look-only, and the staff handles them to either make copies or allow you to transcribe stuff.
It’s also helping to alleviate the wear and tear on such important items. It used to be, at the old War College facility at Carlisle, that you could just go through the books stacks, pull out a first edition of a rare Civil War book, and shove it into the copier machine to make copies. I recall, years ago, taking several of those books up to the staff desk and showing them the damage being caused by that. Pages were cracking, missing, falling out. Access to these items was simply too easy and it was irreparably damaging them.
Now, if you’re allowed to page through a particularly rare book, for instance, the staff will make copies. Or, if it’s already too damaged, you’re left to transcribe what you want. Thank goodness – because I saw dozens of books that were turning to dust years ago.
Here in America, we have a very open society because of our liberties, and it used to be that way with much of our Americana. Access was very open for these items. That’s changing, and it’s necessary to save them for future generations, and not see them on eBay. It’s too bad that we have to tighten up such access because of a few rotten apples, but if it saves these pieces of history then it’s worth it. Strange how it reflects the rest of what goes on in the world today, and how some people are more than willing to walk through that open door and do harm to the rest of us who appreciate it.
Shame on them. Lock ‘em up.
And sell the key on eBay.