Monthly Archives: November 2009

Report from the Historic Libraries Forum 2009 Conference “You’re Nicked” – Security in the Special Library

17 November 2009

1. Judith Barnes, Collection Security Co-ordinator, British Library, spoke on COLLECTION SECURITY

They have a policy of ‘zero tolerance’ – they will always prosecute theft, however embarrassing.

What are the risks that you need to be aware of?

a) Poor housekeeping – items mis-shelved etc.

b) Flawed processes

c) Poor compliance

d) Delayed discovery – BL have lost plates, illustrations etc. from within books, not entire books – that is the main challenge they face.

e) Reputational damage – they feel it is best to be as open as possible about thefts that have occurred, even if it is embarrassing.

There is the suggestion that if you are a victim of theft then you are likely to be a victim again e.g. Dulwich Picture Gallery was targeted several times.  Sometimes criminals can consider you a ‘soft touch’ if they have been successful once.

Who does this?

  • Career criminals
  • Opportunistic thieves
  • Collectors


  • If they have the means and opportunity
  • Sometimes planned
  • Sometimes they try to win the trust of staff

A thief will go to the British Library to look at a particular book, then steal pages from the best BL copy in order to make their own copy more valuable.  They will ‘case the joint’ – look at where CCTV cameras are, which security guards are vigilant or lax etc.  One thief handed some cash in to staff – said he had found it on the floor – just to get their trust. 

Three convicted thieves who have stolen plates/maps from books:


All three were esteemed academics and they stole mainly loose leaves, not whole books.  Fallon had his jacket specially adapted to hold papers inside.

How to mitigate the risks?

  • Get senior management commitment
  • Accept and manage risk
  • Make continuous improvements to processes
  • Build and maintain good relationships with the police and the CPS
  • Zero tolerance

A process review was undertaken – all processes were grouped under 3 headings:

  • Reader use
  • Staff use
  • Exhibitions and loans
  • Processing
  • Security

And the question was posed – can any of those processes be tightened up?

In terms of access, each person is required to have a valid pass with their name and address, a digital photograph, and provide 2 proofs of identity (original documents only & bills must be less than 3 months old).

Each user must sign to say that they agree to the Conditions of Use; these specify that damage or removal is forbidden, and inform the reader of the consequences of non-compliance.  All data is kept permanently and is admissible as court evidence.

Anything taken into the Reading Room must be in a clear plastic bag.  No coats or large bags are allowed in the Reading Room.  CCTV is kept for 12 months. All bags are searched on leaving the BL, also laptops (readers have been known to hide documents inside a laptop).  They also do random bag searches of staff.

In the Reading Room invigilation is by plain-clothes staff and in certain rooms there is controlled access.  Staff are encouraged to take short cuts through the Reading Room and check for problems.  They also ask readers to report problems – and that was how they found that plates were missing from one volume. One thief mentioned during police questioning that glass topped tables would have been a deterrent to him. 

The British Library funded a project to digitise maps in early books.  They identified and selected vulnerable maps in early books and put an ownership stamp plus a watermark on each map; this information also enhanced the catalogue record for those books. 

Investigation Once they have identified that a plate/map is missing from a book, the next task is to find out who has referred to that book. And what else have they read?  Are any other items damaged or missing?  Does a subject or format pattern emerge?

Contact the police.  Remember that any emails/documents on the subject will have to be disclosed to the defence.  Also remember that the aim of the CPS is to get a clear conviction with the minimum of expense whereas the library’s main aim is to obtain the return of all items.

The British Library received a lot of co-operation in its investigations from book restorers and the book trade.

In one case, circumstantial evidence (a warning from a library on the continent) was enough to allow them to suspend a reader.

2. Bob Johnson, Technical Survey Manager and Clare Pardy, Fine Art Underwriting Manager, Ecclesiastical Insurance spoke about THE INSURER’S PERSPECTIVE.

Re Out of Hours security – recommends putting as many obstacles in the way of thieves as possible.  Remember that electronic locks may cause a problem if there is a power failure – the doors will automatically stay open because of fire regulations.  CCTV is a deterrent if the system is monitored, and always record in a secure area.  You must check that the CCTV is actually recording – in several cases companies have thought that they had CCTV of an incident only to find that tapes for the previous six months were clear.

Fire safes are, as their name implies, designed to protect against fire – they are relatively easy to break into.  In general, the older the safe and the more brass in the framework, the less safe it will be.

Valuations.  What have you got, and when was it last valued?  It is very important to get a reputable book dealer or auctioneer to value your library.

The valuation of Bishop Philpott’s Library in Truro was a disaster – the dealer, John Thornton, bought the entire library for £38000 and sold it for £500,000. 

One of the librarians present pointed out that one of the problems with valuations is that librarians and insurance companies have completely different views on the ‘value’ of a book.  If a valuable book goes missing, the Library would not necessarily want to replace it but recover and repair it – because the book is central to the whole collection and a replacement will not have the same intrinsic value.  It is the provenance of the book that is important.  However, in many cases the insurance company is interested only in the cost of a replacement.

3. Historic Libraries Forum AGM

A visit by a member of the Friends of Hartlebury Castle to the HLF AGM three years ago was a turning point in saving the Hurd Library.  Richard Hurd, Bishop of Worcester built the Library in 1782, for his fine collection of books.  

4. Peter Hoare of the National Trust spoke about Security Marking

Useful information is found on the following website

5. Sheila Hingley, Head of Heritage Collections, Durham University Library, spoke about ‘Lessons learnt from the theft of the First Folio’

Durham University Library owned a copy of the First Folio that was stolen from an exhibition at the library in 1998; this copy had the longest provenance of all the copies in existence. 

An arrest has been made and the book has been recovered – but with no covers or binding, no title page and no end page. 

Sheila spoke about the improvements to their exhibition space and cabinets since that time.

6. Kathy Lazenbatt, Librarian at the Royal Asiatic Society, spoke about their experiences of theft.

Oliver Fallon, one of their members, targeted the Library of the Royal Asiatic Society in February 2007.  He was a teacher and Sanskrit scholar.  He visited the RAS Library and asked to view particular books and documents.  Another RAS member alerted the Library some days later to the fact that plates were missing from a book.  Mr Fallon was subsequently arrested; he returned the material as he had not had time to dispose of it.

Lessons learnt:

a. On the days that he visited, the librarian was off sick and the assistant librarian was also ill so other staff had stepped in.  In hindsight, the Library should have been closed.  But this idea that ‘the show must go on’ now comes second to security concerns.  On two occasions since then the Library has been closed due to staff shortages.

b. He targeted items that were not fully catalogued because it would be difficult for RAS to prove ownership.

c. Warning Signs:

i. he edited and updated lists of material that were included with the documents that he viewed – this was to make himself helpful to staff and encourage them to trust him

ii. he asked for a lot of photocopying in order to divert a member of staff

iii. he asked for material that was outside his subject area – researchers are normally very focused on their subject area

iv. He looked through pages and pages of material very quickly – obviously just checking what was worth stealing. 

d. You are just as vulnerable from scholars as from ordinary citizens.

7. Panel Discussion

Christine Penney, the Hurd Librarian at Hartlebury Castle also spoke about the need to check contractors who come to do maintenance work in the library.  In one instance a contractor was given the keys of the cupboard containing rare books so that he could do electrical work – he was working at the weekend and it was felt that this would be less disruptive.  However, he stole some books and this was not initially noticed.  Later on he was arrested on a motoring charge – a search of his house revealed the books that he was going to sell to feed his drug habit.

Renae Satterley, Rare Books Librarian at the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple, spoke about tracing stolen books.  They have 9000 early printed books in the library.  In 2003 they hired a conservator who was subsequently sacked.  After he had left they found that he had stolen many books or razored out maps or plates.  Having searched online for ‘Middle Temple’ together with relevant dates and price ranges, they found that many items were coming up for sale on ebay etc.  In this way they have found many of the stolen items.

Another solution that is used in some libraries to identify an individual document stolen from a pile of papers is to weigh the entire pile of papers before and after.  However, thieves can replace valuable items with ordinary sheets of paper.  In the case of coins, some libraries have just done a visual check – only to find out later that the valuable coins have been replaced with worthless ones (this happened to a library that allowed an ex-member of staff to view them).

Over 600 books were stolen over a period of 13 months by a member of staff at Manchester Central Library, so there is also the ‘threat within’ to be considered.

Mary Duffy [Librarian Army & Navy Club 2009]