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Terrorism fear takes over security at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is America's national library. It also may be the only library in the United States where getting into one of its Capitol Hill buildings is a lot like trying to board an airplane. Security has shifted so much to anti-terrorism that it's no longer doing its intended job, to protect the library collection from theft.


Capitol Hill security checkpoint. All photos by the author.

Ever since terrorist attacks in Oklahoma City in 1995 and on 9/11, security has been dialed up to high. Streets in the federal core were closed and gates, bollards, and industrial-sized planters appeared around buildings. To get beyond most federal buildings' lobbies, there's a hodgepodge of security measures that includes metal detectors, searches, hand-held wands, and ID checks.

At the Library of Congress, security protocols that once guarded against people stealing from the library are now more focused on keeping weapons and bombs out.

Some of the nation's treasures have become eBay sales

Like most museums and archives, the library uses multiple layers of security to protect its 158 million item collection. Items have unique labels, and private security guards monitor reading rooms. Rooms with rare or especially valuable items have additional security. There are also cameras everywhere.


Library of Congress reading room.

None of these appear to be fully effective in preventing researchers and staff from leaving with purloined items. In 2011, presidential historian Barry Landau and an accomplice were indicted for stealing items from institutions including the Library of Congress.

That was not an isolated incident for the federal government. Former National Archives employees have been involved in multiple high-profile thefts, including in 2011 when former archivist Leslie Waffen stole historic recordings, and in 2002 when archivist Shaun Aubitz stole documents from the Philadelphia archives branch. Both Waffen and Aubitz used eBay to sell their artifacts.

The National Archives thefts occurred despite tight security that involves guards examining every piece of paper and book leaving facilities.

The Library's security protocols have reversed

According to a report from 1998, entering the Library then was "no different than most other security stations on Capitol Hill: Hand the guard your bag and walk through the metal detectors." That process typically took seconds.

Leaving the library, however, was an ordeal. It used to involve a Library of Congress Police officer removing everything from briefcases and backpacks and thumbing through books and papers to ensure that nothing was leaving that shouldn't.

Now, to enter, visitors have to remove electronics and other items, then go through an x-ray conveyor. To leave, officers peek into partially opened bags and do not typically bother to inspect books or folders. The process to enter takes a long time, but exiting usually takes less than ten seconds.

Shennell Antrobus, an officer in the US Capitol Police public information office, declined to answer questions about changes in exit screening, citing sensitivity. "We use our technology and certain aspects of security screening for both the entry and the exit," he said.

Did a police force merger weaken security?

From 1950 to 2008, the library had its own independent police force, whose mission included protecting its collections. Longtime researchers and staff suggest that the apparent shift in security priorities accelerated in 2008 when the Library of Congress Police merged with the US Capitol Police.


Library of Congress Jefferson Building entrance with security barrier. Federal regulations prohibit photographing interior security checkpoints.

Around the time of the merger, most of the discussion centered on personnel matters like seniority and rank. There does not appear to have been a public discussion about what the merger would mean for loss prevention at the Library of Congress. Semi-annual Inspector General reports show that most security issues in the Library relate to employee theft and the theft of laptop computers.

Library security was tight long before terrorism reconfigured federal architecture, but it was tight in different ways. Now, with such a strong spotlight on keeping terrorism out, security seems to be letting its original mission slip.

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