An Archival Dilemma


Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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40 Responses

  1. Avatar Road Scholar says:

    Perhaps a museum somewhere? Otherwise I’m just glad to see history preserved.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      I’m simply giddy about seeing history preserved. I’m just not entirely sure what that means.

      Suppose this had taken place before scanners. Had the archives sent that file into the vault, never again to see the light of day, that would have preserved history in some sense, but not in the sense of its being accessible to researchers. Or, if they had the budget for this, they might have had it professionally cataloged, and theoretically accessible to researchers who could talk their way in. (I very well might not have qualified, as my formal credentials for this sort of thing are thin.) In practice this would have erected a barrier to anyone actually accessing it, with the height of the barrier depending on who wanted to see it.

      But we are in the scanning era, so what does that mean? Does making a scan available count as preserving history? If so, then why not sell off the original, or use it to light your grill? If the preservation lies in the scan, then the actual piece of paper is irrelevant. Or if the preservation lies in the paper, then we have just erected that barrier. (I assume it would be theoretically possible to persuade them to bring it out of the vault, but you would need to make a good argument why the scan wouldn’t suffice for whatever you are doing.)

      Here’s another story. There was one particular newspaper that, in the late 1860s, was one of the most important baseball papers in the country. For that era, only one (so far as I know) set still exists, in the Library of Congress. It is in bound volumes, and has not been scanned or microfilmed. This presents its own barriers. They are kept off site, at Fort Meade, and you have to request them about a week in advance. But this is doable. But when I got them, I was flabbergasted to discover many of the issues were uncut. This is exactly like an old book, where the pages were printed on large sheets that got folded and sewn together in a binding. The customer had to cut the pages open to read the book. So if you ever see one with uncut pages, you know it has literally never been read. This used to be a classic way to spot a poser. It turns out that this newspaper was printed the same way. The paper sheets must have been humongous. The question was, what to do? I showed this to the librarians, and they froze. We all knew the answer, but in the newspaper reading room they were not acculturated to the idea of cutting pages open. They eventually kicked the question to a more senior librarian, who cogitated a while then handed me letter opener, so it all ended well. But in the meantime, one of my arguments was that if they would not permit the pages to be cut, it necessarily followed that they were not permitting the newspaper to be read, and if that was the policy, why not make a pile in the street and throw gasoline on it and make a bonfire? I put it more nicely than that, of course.

      The point is that if you become so protective that you create insurmountable barriers to access, then you are no longer an archive or a research library. You are a mausoleum.Report

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    Possession starring Richard Hershberger

    • Avatar aaron david says:

      That’s a good book.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Very much so. Did you see the bomb of the movie? The movie is a good variant of an interesting failure. David Henry Hwang helped write the script (he is a great playwright), there were some great performances but also some inexplicable changes. I don’t get why they turned Roland into an American (I like Aaron Eckhart as a writer), they got rid of the squalor of his basement apartment and turned into something airy and sparse but comfortable. Instead of renting from a crabby old lady, he rents from a young solicitor who is also his friend.

        I’d love to have been a fly on the wall when they were debating the changes from book to movie for this one. I am morbidly curious about the justifications.

        There were also some neat visual tricks in the movie as they went from present to past.Report

        • Avatar LeeEsq says:

          Roland was turned into American presumably so that American audiences can have somebody to identify with. The visual changes were made because movies are an intensely visual media so beauty is favored over ugliness or averageness even in independent movies. Americans are worse at this, followed by the British, and everybody else is better at depicting averageness in movies.Report

        • Avatar aaron david says:

          Lee gets it. Different audience for the movie than the book, as they changed it from academic thriller to romantic thriller. Also wrong director entirely. I like Neil LaBute, but it just wasn’t his type of movie. I am guessing that is why some things worked well, and others… not so much.Report

  3. Avatar Lyle says:

    At 140 years and counting the future of the documents depends on the paper used. It is getting to near the end of the lifetime of some of the papers due to acid in the paper. Also is the vault perhaps better climate controlled than the area where the paper is stored, which might prolong the life of the paper. In one sense scanning the documents ensures that the contents will survive a fire which could happen, after all most of the 1890 US census records burnt up a number of years ago as also did most of the WWII military discharge papers.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      This. And archival storage (in acid-absorbing paper) is expensive.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      Newsprint from this era can be sketchy. Cheaper paper became widely available. Reading bound volumes of newspapers, it is immediately obvious when a publication made the switch. The older editions hold up just fine, while the newer ones threaten to turn into a pile of dust.

      For court filings, decent paper was the norm. So long as it is stored in a reasonable manner, it holds up just fine over this time scale. They were typically folded up into three sections. I had no trouble with unfolding them. I would worry about the ink fading if an item were put on display, but that isn’t an issue here.Report

  4. Avatar Will H. says:

    A few months ago, I was at an archive repository for the court records of some five counties.
    I saw Lincoln’s signature, and some of the cases he worked on– not reproductions, but the original documents.
    It did give me an odd feeling looking at that. I have difficulty describing it at present.
    The other stuff, not so much, though I did find the nineteenth century records quite interesting; notary seals, stamps, etc.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      I’m impressed. Reputedly, courthouses across Illinois were long ago stripped of files with Lincoln’s signature. I don’t mean stripped in the sense that those files were specially protected to prevent theft. I mean stripped in the sense that they were stolen, usually by other lawyers.Report

  5. Avatar CK MacLeod says:

    As someone who up until relatively recently made a living selling items that some viewed as stolen or misappropriated, but, unless sold on the collector’s market, would simply be destroyed or forgotten (“movie art,” especially movie art since 1968), I have to confess I am as unsympathetic to the rationale, in view of the resolution, as I am cognizant of its high propriety.

    I think there is at least an argument that a lover of baseball and baseball history owed it the baseball universe to steal – or safeguard, some might say – at least some of the items in question, and ensure that they ended up on the market, precisely so that others who might appreciate them became aware of them and seized the opportunity. If the thieves/guardians remunerate themselves via the market for risks taken and services rendered – well, why not exactly? – even if, from some strict point of view, the trade made be corrupt.

    By the way, what would be the penalty for someone discovered to have appropriated the documents and to have profited from their sale? Would buyers be accepting a risk of forced forfeiture?

    I am not suggesting, by the way, that the collector’s market is an unambiguous good. One of the absurd by-products of the development of the collectibles trade is the existence of services that will acquire a greatly desired item – a rare comic book or trading card, for example – for a client, and store it somewhere: In theory and in fact, buyers or agents will acquire and store these items without ever examining them in person, or perhaps with only paying them a rare visit: For the most part, the only people who ever get a chance to “experience their aura” are the expert appraisers and the original owners. For many collectors, not just the ones making investments, the mere knowledge of possession eventually replaces the experience of it.

    But I still think Mr. Hershberger maybe shoulda grabbed a few pieces and found a way to share them.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      I dunno, @ck-macleod it strikes me that two wrongs don’t make a right.

      First, decaying public records that have cultural values is a problem. Conserving old paper is an expensive thing to do, and often a low priority given other pressures on limited resources. That’s the first wrong.

      But theft of those public records, even with the intent of preserving/conserving them, is still theft of public property; akin to archeologists taking artifacts from sites without the host-country’s permission, to sell to private collectors.

      I’d suggest a third path: digitizing the documents for public record and access, and then perhaps selling the valuable parts at public auction to collectors, with proceeds going to further digitization/preservation or other public projects.Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

        The circumstances as Mr. Hershberger describes them are that, as a result of his intervention, these records have been deep-sixed, filed somewhere in the vicinity of Indy’s Ark, or deep in the bowels of Warehouse 13. So he would seem to have ensured that, for all intents and purposes, he will be the last individual with an ability to appreciate them who will have anything to do with them. He is like one of those collectors I described, but instead of some private company holding the precious (or potentially precious) finds for him, where no one including him will ever see them, the state is doing it. Your third path is speculative, and will eventually lead to borderline questions that the state may have difficulty handling: If it sells documents from an old legal case of interest to baseball aficionados, what about selling, say, the official death certificates of victims of the sinking of the Titanic, or Abraham Lincoln’s autopsy? For all I know that’s been done, but I’m just offering hypotheticals: Sooner or later we’ll arrive at the right borderline cases leading to decades of line-drawing, until, finally, after the death of baseball and the fall of the United States of America and the Singularity and so on, finally the documents will become available again, but no one will care.

        Maybe that avenue would be worth pursuing, but all that we know now is that Mr H had the items, and, if I am understanding him correctly, no one else ever is likely to see them again.Report

        • Avatar zic says:

          If they’re in a private collection (and not a museum or library,) that’s also likely.Report

          • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

            Depends on the collector. Some will happily and proudly exhibit their finds, in various ways, including at museums and libraries, of course: Much of whatever you go see at your favorite museum will be on loan from one or another private collection, and much of whatever is owned by state institutions will have been donated by collectors or their estates.Report

            • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

              There is more to access than this. First, you have to find the damned thing. Here is how I found this one: A read a brief item in a newspaper of the day reporting the filing of the suit. I wondered if the court files from this court and this year still exist. (It can go either way for this era.) So I made a few phone calls. My first guess was the Baltimore City archives. The told me that, if it still existed, it would be in the state archives. A chat with them established that it might exist, and that yes, they were the ones who would have it if it had survived, but I would have to visit in person. I made the trip, and I spent about an hour with an archivist tracking down the right docket book, and from this the right box. These were possible because I knew about when the case had been filed and had a reasonable guess at the name of the case.

              Now suppose this item had gone onto the collectors’ market at some point. How would I go about finding it? There is no index of who owns what. If I were very lucky, Google and I might find it in an auctioneer’s catalog; the auction house might be willing to forward a message to the purchaser; the purchaser might still have it; and might be willing to give access to it. The process begins with a shot in the dark, and then transitions to persuading people to do things for which they have no obligation.Report

    • By the way, what would be the penalty for someone discovered to have appropriated the documents and to have profited from their sale? Would buyers be accepting a risk of forced forfeiture?

      Not sure what you mean by “forced forfeiture,” but here’s an example, if an extreme and particular to the circumstance one, of the types of penalties.

      Now a disclosure: Nothing I’m about to say necessarily represents the views of my colleagues or my employers. None of the practices I’m about to describe necessarily reflects what is done at any archives facility I’ve worked at or currently work at.

      Archives such as the one Richard visited–although I have not been to that particular repository–are based largely on trust that the patrons won’t steal the documents. Yes, most repositories do have security procedures and registration requirements and most do require all documents to be reviewed in a reading room that is supervised by an employee. But according to acquaintances of acquaintances I have known, the reading room attendant simply can’t or doesn’t monitor like a hawk everyone in the reading room, nor could the attendant do so other than intermittently, especially on a busy day. It would be possible that someone, as in the example I linked to above, could very well know how to play by the “security theatre” rules the repository has in place and get away with stealing one or two rare items. Maybe not the large number of items that guy stole, but at least a few.

      When someone steals, that disrupts the trust. It prompts archivists to look upon their patrons with suspicion and prompts them to tighten the security theatre or perhaps deny or further limit access. People who trade in such items on the internet are abetting the theft and are in my opinion just as guilty as the thief. And although I don’t completely deny your argument that it’s better to have things out in the open than it is to lock them up in an archive (I don’t agree, but I don’t deny), that argument is not sufficient reason to justify theft.

      The argument by itself doesn’t make the thief or the one who abets the thief an actual bred thief. Maybe if the person selling such goods on the ‘net is doing so for the most urgent of reasons and would literally face eviction or starvation without the money, then that person is a bread thief. But then, we’re going beyond the “it helps the history of baseball to have the artifacts in private hands” argument.

      Also, keep in mind that most archives have a hard time obtaining funding. Policymakers and others generally want to spend money elsewhere and don’t assign a super-high priority to archives. I’m actually not complaining about that fact as much as some of my own colleagues and others in my profession might. It’s a political process and I don’t blame people for prioritizing other things to spend money on when there is less government revenue. But if I’m not complaining, I am pointing out that thefts and the threat of thefts require archivists to devote more and more of their already scarce resources to security when in practice, most of us wish to expand (not restrict) access.

      There are some exceptions, but most of us are happy–even appreciative–when patrons use our resources. When I work with patrons who come in, I do try to make a point to be polite and thank them for visiting us, not because they can go elsewhere (by definition, if it’s an archives, they probably can’t), but because I realize that without patrons, I wouldn’t have a job. I want to be someone who helps patrons–and archvies can be intimidating places, even to advanced researchers who are used to working them–and tightening security and lowering my level of trust prevents me from doing that.Report

      • Sorry about the typos. I should’ve taken a few deep breaths, calmed down, and proofread my comment.Report

      • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

        I haven’t dealt with the Maryland Historical Society, but the Pennsylvania Historical Society has within recent years instituted much stricter security procedures, down to the level of having someone flip through the pages of your legal pad on your way out.

        As for the legal aspect, in English law a purchase does not establish clear title. If you buy a stolen item–even in good faith–the owner can force its return. At least this is the theory. In practice establishing the claim can be difficult. Consider the cases we see of families of Holocaust victims suing for the return of artwork. These are further confused by dealing with Continental Civil law, which is very different from English (and by extension American) law. But simply proving that grandpa owned the piece is a significant barrier.

        On the topic of stolen sports memorabilia generally, see for an obsessive examination of the subject.Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

      The discussion would be entirely different if the items were headed for the dumpster. I totally would snag them on their way out the door, given the opportunity, and I would do it with no moral qualms.

      In this instance, however, we are talking about them going into a vault. The bit about their never again to see the light of day was hyperbole. As Gabriel points out elsethread, what this really means is that a researcher has to sweet talk the archivist. They also would be available for, e.g., an exhibit on early baseball in Maryland.

      The vault is a non-decision of what to do with the items. This is in contrast with the dumpster, or keeping them in an attic until they fall apart into dust. Even if everyone agrees that the vault is suboptimal, it keeps other options open.

      This is true even compared with selling them. That option is very close to destroying them, if not totally. The items that are salable on the collector’s market are just a tiny fraction of the file. We could not count on a collector keeping the entire file intact. Quite the contrary, this clearly would not be how to optimize the retail value. A dozen stock certificates are worth more sold individually than they are as a collection. The historical value, by contrast, depends in large part in keeping the entire file together. I want to be able to build a picture of events. This is hard enough with the complete file. Break it up into bits and pieces and there rapidly is insufficient context to make sense of it.

      This is the problem with bootleg antiquities. A professional archeologist is obsessed with documenting an item’s context: where it was uncovered, what was around it, and so forth, in glorious detail. The bootlegger is concerned only with market value. Even if the item makes its way into the light of day, its research value is diminished.Report

      • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

        Richard Hershberger: The bit about their never again to see the light of day was hyperbole. As Gabriel points out elsethread, what this really means is that a researcher has to sweet talk the archivist. They also would be available for, e.g., an exhibit on early baseball in Maryland.

        This conversation is entirely speculative, and, to be clear, I was not asserting that you clearly should have taken something, only that what you present or presented as a “dilemma,” the items “never again to see the light of day,” can be authentically a dilemma. In extreme circumstances – civil emergency or natural catastrophe – no one will put up a protest if someone, possibly the archivists themselves, break the rules and take some precious items home rather than see them destroyed by barbarian hordes or by flood waters. In other circumstances, a history lover or even a real historian might reach a very low estimate of the particular archive’s ability to care responsibly for precious and important items: Maybe it has a reputation for lax security, corrupt personnel, and mishandling of items of the particular type. Maybe the collector expects that the next person to view the items will mishandle them either in the process of stealing them or in the process of transferring them to “the vault”: Maybe I know that, if I appropriate this one or another particularly beautiful and informative piece, I will put it in a protective case, thoroughly photograph it, and ensure that it finds a good home where it will be treated lovingly and shared with aficionados, and someday with an appreciative public by “the light of day.”

        In the meantime, the very fact that the blogger was able to locate documents whose value he believes is extraordinary, and in conditions where someone less honest or less appreciative of the archivist’s ethos than he is could easily “slip these modestly sized items into [a] legal pad and walk out the door,” reinforces the case for taking measures into one’s own hands, given the evident inability of the state to take care of what it has.

        Again, this conversation is entirely speculative. In fact, if I were in the blogger’s position, and the water levels weren’t visibly rising and the torch-bearing hordes visibly surfing in on them at that moment, I’d probably have done the same thing, while also wondering if I should have come up with some better solution.

        The value of the items on the market – again, I’m just speculating, and presuming that what the blogger tells me is well-founded – is nothing more or less than an expression of high demand for or interest in them. Maybe it’s something silly that doesn’t deserve to be satisfied or encouraged. The blogger somewhat diminishes it, saying he doesn’t share any feeling for the original as original, but is only interested in the information it provides. So, it’s a judgment against the collector’s passion. Yet it’s questionable whether the serious historian, or the public interest generally, would be better off without collectors, who in some fields will be responsible for preserving whatever access professional historians or anyone else will still have to such materials, and who may work with and support archivists, never steal from them, and eventually add to their holdings.Report

        • Avatar Richard Hershberger says:

          To be blunt, this is one big steaming pile of rationalization. Someone else might steal it, so really the virtuous thing for me to do is steal it first, and then take good care of it, right? Yeah, sure. The potential for theft existed not because the archive was unable to secure high-value items. It was because they didn’t realize that that this was a high-value item. The solution is not to steal it first, before some less virtuous thief gets to it, but to bring the value of the item to the archive’s attention.

          As for collectors versus historians, the collectors’ market is a clear negative for historians. Once an item hits the collectors’ market, it is usually lost to historians, for the reasons I have discussed elsethread: lack of access and lost context. Archives and research libraries don’t have a fraction of the budget necessary to compete with collectors to acquire this stuff, and the existence of the collectors’ market diverts material that might otherwise go to the archive or library. The problem of theft and security measures to prevent it are a direct result of the existence of the collectors’ market, and result in an illicit flow of items from the research to the collectors’ realm. Occasionally a collector will donate or bequeath his collection to a library, but not all that often.Report

          • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

            Richard Hershberger,

            If you’re not going to pay attention to what I actually say, and fully concede, and instead are going to argue against the apparent basis for your post, in other words against the existence of any authentic “dilemma” at all, then we can just drop the discussion.Report

            • CK,

              I think part of the problem is that you weren’t being clear and so it was (and is) somewhat difficult to know what exactly you’re arguing. Maybe a short thesis statement, or a tl;dr, would help with many of your comments. I can be verbose and unclear, too, so I’m not innocent of the charge I’m laying on you.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                I don’t know about CK’s subsequent comments, but his first one (the one I read this morning) amounted to defending making a living off the sale of stolen memorabilia on the grounds that doing so amounted to a public service. I’m not sure what’s been said since then, but it sure sounded like clear, rather than unclear, bs to me.Report

              • @stillwater

                I’m not sure I fully understood his first comment, but I did interpret it the way you did. Hence my ranting and raving in response.Report

              • Avatar CK MacLeod says:

                Gabriel – I’m the one who was unclear? RH referred to a dilemma in the title of his post. A “dilemma” consists of two lemmas. I explored aspects of what I take to be one of the two “horns” of RH’s dilemma, while conceding that for myself I would have done the same in this particular situation as RH himself ended up doing, and every response I have gotten since then has been criticism for daring to suggest that the dilemma is even conceivably a dilemma, and how dare I even think such a thing!

                I introduced certain extreme cases as well as others closer to the realm of likelihood in order to make clear that the rationale implicitly advanced by the author is not completely alien even to the honest archivist or other guardian of rare items. That rationale is now being rejected even by the author – who began by admitting he was attracted to it, and who, according to his own admission, indulged in hyperbole, presumably for the sake of heightening its attractiveness to the unwitting reader, who has only his testimony to depend on as regards the nature of this particular case.

                I’m sorry, but I’m not inclined to re-write or expand upon my comments for people who could have taken the time to read them closely, and without seeking a villain of the conversation.Report

              • I’m the one who was unclear? RH referred to a dilemma in the title of his post. A “dilemma” consists of two lemmas….

                I’m not inclined to spend much more time on this. The fact (if it is a fact) that Richard was being unclear, or using the word “dilemma” imprecisely, doesn’t mean that your writing is easy to read. Again, I often fall toward the “is too verbose and circumlocutes too much” part of the spectrum. So I’m not innocent of the charge. But there will come a point where people just won’t read or make the effort to understand what you say, even if what you say is especially worth reading and making the effort to understand.Report

      • Richard,

        Thanks for your comments. I think I agree with most of what you say, but I have some quibbles:

        The vault is a non-decision of what to do with the items. This is in contrast with the dumpster, or keeping them in an attic until they fall apart into dust. Even if everyone agrees that the vault is suboptimal, it keeps other options open.

        The vault is not necessarily a non-decision. I don’t know anything about the Maryland State Archives, but at the repository I’m familiar with, putting something in the vault doesn’t mean it won’t be seen. It just means we’ll take extra precautions. That’s different from a “restriction,” which in my observation, unfortunately, seems to serve the purpose of a non-decision decision.

        I’d also put this slightly differently:

        As Gabriel points out elsethread, what this really means is that a researcher has to sweet talk the archivist.

        You’re not wrong, but whether it really counts as “sweet talking” or “simply asking” depends on the archivist or the repository. Archivists have pretty strong incentives to want to let patrons see things, especially if they’re at a relatively underused repository (like the one I work at). They also–or at least some of them–see making access as wide as possible to be one of their prime missions (which, of course, conflicts with the other missions of preservation and, sometimes, respect for copyright, donor restrictions, and third-party privacy, but the latter two, especially, are a can of worms).

        What I mean is, I imagine most–or at least that not quite definable “many”–archivists like to think that they don’t have to be sweet talked, that they’ll be fair to all comers. Maybe that’s largely a self-aggrandizing conceit (it probably is to some extent), but it’s often honestly held.Report

  6. @richard-hershberger ,

    The dilemma you describe could partially be resolved by the repository offering the patron to view the now marked item under special circumstances, say, in a room where an archivist sits with the patron while the patron reviews the item. That’s not ideal–because it can make things uncomfortable for the patron–and it also requires the repository to devote scarce resources to being with that one patron. In one relatively important repository I’ve heard of, there are supposedly times where there are only two people on staff, and it would be hard to do that.

    That said….in my experience, if a patron really, really, really wants to see an original, they can usually ask the archivist and arrangements can be made. That, too, is not ideal. Not all patrons are comfortable making such requests, and not all ven realize that it is something that can be requested (when I was doing my dissertation, I wouldn’t have dreamed of making such requests). But it is at least quasi-common practice, though usually varies by repository and/or by the archivist. My own preference is to make as much of an accommodation as possible consistent with our policies. But I promise that if my repository ever suffers a theft and someone like the commenter above is seen selling some of our items, I’ll be much less willing to accommodate.Report

  7. Avatar Anne says:

    @gabriel-conroy thanks for your views on this. I also work with museums and archives. It is always a balancing act of on one hand preserving items for future display, study or research and access for the public. Money is always the issue either for staffing or for digitizing the collection.

    I can recommend a very interesting book The Island of Lost Maps which talks about a thief that went around to archives cutting maps out of books to resell to the collectors market. That covers exactly this topic

  8. Avatar Jaybird says:

    One of the museums out there (a British one, I think) posted a picture of a few of the shelves in the warehouses. Shelf after shelf after shelf full of Grecian Pottery that was centuries or millennia old that and it seemed to be of high quality. Hundreds of pots.

    I was finding myself thinking “man, wouldn’t it be nice if they could sell some of those? Wouldn’t it be nice to own a Grecian bowl with a couple of people running on the side?”

    They stay in the warehouse. On the shelf after shelf after shelf. Hundreds of pots.Report