Pre-pandemic, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit various archive facilities in the United Kingdom. I was so impressed with the staff’s in-depth knowledge as well as the wide scope of the collections that were beautifully preserved in both safe and environmentally-controlled conditions. I was fully prepared to visit and respect the rules, including no pens or highlighters, overstuffed bags or food/drink at the research tables. This all makes common sense to ensure that the collections are preserved and available for future generations. There is one experience that to this day I still cannot fathom. This involves the concept of nefarious individuals stealing archives from government facilities. When I made my first few trips to the archives, I understood the security was in place for a good reason. It just wasn’t until I was actually onsite when the reality hit me.
Here is a nation’s history, readily available for any person with a valid reader’s ticket to enjoy. The collections are vast and well-catalogued. When one enters a facility, personal belongings are put into a locker and visitors enter the research floor(s) with a clear plastic bag containing only basic necessities, nothing that would damage materials viewed. As I clutched my plastic bag and ascended the stairs up to the research level, I felt incredibly privileged to have access to these wonderful, centuries-old documents. It would never cross my mind to steal a document from the archives and then sell it on the open market. Yet, apparently there are those who try and make a profit this way. Rather shocking, isn’t it? I have a really hard time getting my mind wrapped around such a thought.
Sure, it would be much more convenient to bring your coat and purse etc. into the research floor and not have to bother with a locker. However, one must look at the greater good. By having strict rules and security guards, the nation’s—and world’s—history is preserved and protected. One could get into a large debate over how some historical documents sold on the open auction market really belong in a public facility for all to enjoy and to research. It is a reality that documents in private hands cannot all be purchased by public facilities: the budgets are simply not there. Still, for the documents that the archives do house, it makes perfect sense that they should be adequately and securely protected. It’s only fair to everyone.