Published: February 24, 2011
Last month, the National Archives banned an amateur historian who did what should have been unthinkable: He doctored the date on a valuable Lincoln document. Now the archives has found that it has a more widespread problem, with underhanded “scholars” and sneak thieves making off with American treasures to sell on the black market to history buffs.
“We have people alone with images and artifacts all the time,” Paul Brachfeld, the inspector general of the archives told The Washington Post. “The thieves all say how easy it was,” he said, describing recent efforts to better secure archives and track down missing items.
Among the items known to be missing are Lincoln telegrams from the Civil War, patents for Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and the Wright brothers’ flying machine, target maps for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the “only known copy” of the Potsdam Declaration signed by President Harry Truman at the end of World War II, and more.
It may be impossible to measure the full extent of theft and damage. There are billions of items stored in the archives’ 44 centers — including presidential libraries and deep warehouses — in “a constant state of risk,” according to the inspector general’s report last year.
Current defenses include video lookouts and requirements that researchers lock up personal items and use the archives’ paper, pencils and duplicating machines. Monitors watch visitors from overlook desks, and only certain staff members can roam storage stacks. But as a practical matter, officials say, the pockets of the many authorized visitors cannot be fully searched as they exit.The National Archives has a dual mandate: to secure the country’s ongoing historical trove but also to maximize access for citizens to view and study democracy’s treasures firsthand. Thoughtful Americans must hope the heightened defenses of the archives pay off. The last thing the nation needs is for its treasures to be sealed off in a mausoleum.