Picking up from last week’s post, here’s what happened on day 2 of the CILIP RBSCG Annual Study Conference.
The theme for day 2 of the conference was Theft and Vandalism. The first presentation of the day by Barbara McCormack, Special Collections Librarian at Maynooth University, described the process of relocating the Otway-Maurice Collection from its original home in St Canice’s cathedral in Kilkenny to Maynooth University library in Dublin.
The collection was founded in 1683 with a bequest from Bishop Thomas Otway, and significantly expanded in the 18th century with another bequest from Bishop Edward Maurice. The collection consists of more than 3000 volumes, including 4 incunabula and 300 pre-1600 titles. Since its inception, the collection had been housed in the 14th century cathedral in Kilkenny, on open shelves in a room which was frequently used for parish events. An initial assessment of the collection revealed that the relative humidity in the room reached as high as 75%, encouraging mould growth and an infestation of silverfish.
In 2001, the Representative Body of the Church of Ireland approached Maynooth University in Dublin about taking over custodianship of the collection due to growing concerns over the physical deterioration and security risks to the collection. In exchange for a long-term loan of the books, Maynooth university agreed to pay for the transportation, conservation, cataloguing, and general custodianship of the books, while the cathedral would retain legal ownership.
Before the books could be moved, they were fully inventoried, frozen (to kill the silverfish), cleaned, and in some cases, repaired. The collection was then catalogued to a basic level, with more detailed cataloguing taking place as resources become available. The collection’s new storage area is maintained at 17 degrees and 45% relative humidity, and there are security systems in place. Although this was a very expensive process, the university felt that it was a worthwhile investment in order to gain ready access to the collection for its students and faculty. Since moving to its new home, the collection has been heavily used for teaching, research, and exhibitions.
The second presentation by Anke Timmerman, Library Liaison from the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA). Dr Timmermann’s addressed the issue of theft more directly by describing the the ways that antiquarian booksellers can work with libraries to prevent or respond to theft and vandalism.
Researching provenance (or ownership history) is an important part of the antiquarian book trade. The ability to trace a particular copy of a book to a particular owner has the potential to greatly enhance its value, but it can also reveal that an item may not have been obtained legally. For this reason, the ABA has created guidelines which are designed to make theft (especially from libraries) and the sale of stolen books more difficult.
According to these guidelines, ABA members are expected to do due diligence in researching the provenance of high-value items, confirming that the seller acquired the item legally, and that it was imported or exported legally. If material is suspected to have been stolen, booksellers must conduct research into the book’s provenance, contact the book’s legitimate owner, and cooperate fully with law enforcement to return the stolen material and apprehend those responsible.
Conversely, libraries are expected to do their part to protect their collections against theft and vandalism by establishing and following procedures which minimise opportunities for theft by staff and users, ensuring that rare materials are used under supervision, cataloguing and recording unique identifying features, applying unique and indelible marks of ownership to collections materials, and indelibly cancelling those markings if an item is deaccessioned. Libraries are expected to keep a record of all disposals, and to retain sufficient information to enable subsequent identification of their particular copy of the book.
In the event that a book is stolen, it is important to report the theft as soon as possible. Historically, cultural institutions have been reluctant to admit when items have been stolen for fear that it would damage their reputations and drive away prospective donors, but many cultural heritage professionals now recognise that remaining silent about theft only makes it easier to sell the stolen property. The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) maintains a register of stolen books, and the Art Loss Register includes books, manuscripts, and fragments thereof valued at £300 or more.
The third speaker, Adrian Edwards, Head of Printed Heritage Collections at the British Library, picked up where Dr. Timmerman’s presentation left off, describing some of the security measures in place at the British Library and describing how three particular book thieves were caught and convicted. Conference delegates were asked not to share the details of these investigations on social media, but all three examples held chilling similiarities. In every case, the thief was a frequent visitor to the library, well known to library staff and trusted by them. None of the thieves had any prior criminal convictions, and yet all of them did irreparable damage to unique historical artifacts.
As a government body, the British Library views investigating and prosecuting theft as part of its obligation to use public funds responsibly. They always prosecute where the evidence allows, and they always pursue staff disciplinary action where applicable. Collection security appears in their Strategic Risk Register, and there are a number of policies in place both to minimise the risk of theft or loss by members of the public and their own staff.
Although some of the British Library’s security measures are beyond the reach of smaller institutions due to insufficient equipment or staffing, there are certain principles that can be applied by libraries of any size: taking a pro-active approach to security by performing regular collection audits, tracking the movement of items, and identifying high-risk items enables libraries to identify and investigate missing items quickly. Consistent and uniform application of security procedures for staff and readers alike reduces the opportunities for theft, and clear ownership markings ensure that stolen items can be easily identified and returned to their rightful owners.
The final speaker of the day, Giles Mandelbrote, Librarian and Archivist at Lambeth Palace Library, told the story of a major theft of around 1400 early printed items in 1974, nearly all of which were returned in 2011. The story involved an unusual stipulation in the thief’s will, some particularly inspired detective work involving an old, long-since superseded print catalogue of the library’s collection, and the discovery of a locked trapdoor into a hidden loft. The story is well–documented elsewhere, but the take-away lessons for conference delegates focused on the importance of retaining print catalogues as historical snapshots of the collection, and the need to work with the media to ensure that coverage focused on the restoration of the books rather than poor security and the subsequent cover-up of the loss.
One point which particularly struck me was the fact that the actions of one opportunistic thief were able to change our perception of the historical record. The thief had targeted items which he believed to have the highest resale value. Given the interests of book collectors today, these were primarily on secular topics. In removing those items, the thief drastically changed the overall character of the collection by obscuring the personal interests of the previous archbishops who had bequeathed their personal collections to the library. The idea that a single opportunistic thief could have such a significant impact on our understanding of the past was a sobering thought.
Following a break for lunch, conference delegates split into groups for visits to three different libraries around Brighton. I visited the Keep, a facility shared by the East Sussex Record Office, the Royal Pavilion & Museums Local History Collections, and the University of Sussex Special Collections. Built between 2011 and 2013, this facility is divided into a Repository Block which provides more than six miles of shelving in purpose-built, climate-controlled storage. The Repository Block occupies three floors, and each floor’s temperature and humidity is adjusted to the optimal conditions for the type of materials stored there.
The People Block is organised so that all of the public areas are on the ground floor and wheelchair accessible. These areas include a small exhibition space, reading rooms with computer terminal access, microform readers, and a selection of print reference books, meeting rooms, a group research area, an oral history room with recording facilities, and three multifunction rooms which can be used for school classes, student groups, workshops, receptions, and other events. The upper floor of the People Block houses the staff offices, conservation lab, digitisation studio, and additional space for volunteers, students, and community groups to assist with the Keep’s preservation work. As the icing on the cake, the entire facility is designed to be as sustainable as possible, with green roofs, rainwater catchments, low-energy light fittings, thick walls, super-insulation, and passive solar design for thermal efficiency, and a biomass plant in a nearby (but not adjoining) building to reduce fire risk.
At the end of our tour, we were treated to a display of materials from the different collections housed at the Keep, including the Mass Observation Archive and the personal papers of Lord Richard Attenborough, Rudyard Kipling, and Leonard Woolf.
After our site visits, the last outing for the day was a tour and drinks reception at the Royal Pavilion, built as a seaside getaway for King George IV. A delightfully odd mashup of English, Indian, and Chinese architectural styles, the exterior of the building is covered with spires and onion domes reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, and the interior was designed in imitation of a Chinese palace. Of course, none of the architects, interior decorators, or tradesmen who worked on the pavilion had ever actually been to India or China, so the rooms are filled with oddities like murals of flowering bamboo with vine-like curving stalks, or decorative columns topped by ornately carved dragons with the wings and head of a Welsh dragon, and the curling, serpent-like body of a Chinese dragon.
After the reception, it was back to the University of Sussex for dinner and a bit more socialising before the third and final day of the conference.