Archives puts policies in place to provide enhanced security for special collections while maintaining public access

William Scott appeared in United States District Court on Tuesday, January 4 and pled guilty to the theft of historical letters and artifacts from the Drew University Methodist Archives. Sentencing is scheduled for April 15.

“We’re grateful to the F.B.I. for their excellent work on this case,” said spokesman David Muha. “Through its efforts, we were able to recover all but one page of one letter that was taken. We respect the judgment of the bureau and the court in determining a suitable sentence for this crime.”

Scott took 31 letters and a small wooden box from the archive, where he was a student employee from the fall of 2009 through the discovery of the theft in March of 2010. The only item not recovered is the two-sided second page of a letter written by Charles Wesley in 1755. The archive retains a scan of the page.

Following the incident last spring, a committee comprised of staff from the Drew library and the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church met to review security procedures at the archive.

“Ninety-five percent of the thefts of material from collections at archives, museums and libraries are inside jobs,” said Andrew Scrimgeour, dean of libraries at Drew. “So we’ve looked closely at how our collections are stored and who has access.”

A number of changes have been implemented to ensure the theft—the first to occur in the archival area of the building—is not repeated. These include the relocation of the most valuable items within the archive building to a special limited-access vault, the tightening of security protocols for student staff and increased supervision in the reading room. In making these changes, care was given to preserve public access to the documents.

“One of the temptations in digitizing rare material is to put tighter restrictions on the ability of students and scholars to then use the original documents,” continued Scrimgeour. “The digital image thereby becomes the substitute for the real, even when one visits the library owning the originals.  That approach is tantamount to putting the chains back on the books and harkens to a time when librarians guarded their collections rather than promoted their use.  The care of special material is an essential trust, but it should not preclude the singular delight that only comes in working with the special volume—seeing its size, feeling its heft, turning the pages, smelling its aroma, inspecting the watermarks, reveling in the binding, illustrations, and illumination, and enjoying the perfection of ink on paper.  That experience should remain the hallmark of special collections of Drew University.”

Posted: January 5, 2011