Sunday, July 5, 2009

Items Missing from the National Archives

As a resident of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, I do not blink an eye at the security measures at various institutions and transportation hubs; it’s just a fact of life for our country in general these days and for the capital city in particular. The security at certain Washington institutions still has more to do with preventing theft than with preventing acts of terrorism.

Recent field trips I have taken with the Fairfax Genealogical Society have been to the Library of Congress and the National Archives. At the Library of Congress the size of the bags we were allowed to bring in was limited and at the National Archives what we brought in had to be scanned at the security checkpoint.

I understand that both of these institutions contain some very valuable items and need to be very careful to prevent damage, theft, or careless loss, but I hadn’t quite realized the magnitude of the problem. An article by Larry Margasak of the Associated Press entitled “Historical items missing at the Archives” that appeared in my local paper today outlined some pretty serious losses, including the following:

“- Civil War telegrams from Abraham Lincoln,
- Original signatures of Andrew Jackson,
- Presidential portraits of Franklin D. Roosevelt,
- NASA photographs from space and on the moon, and
- Presidential pardons.”

While I know that many records in which genealogy researchers are interested – Civil War service records, land records, and so forth – are not considered “valuable,” what I know of thefts that have taken place at smaller institutions, such as microfilm of old issues of local newspapers from the offices of those newspapers, microfilm of various records from local libraries, and original records from courthouses, just to name a few – makes me appreciate the strict security measure in place at the National Archives. Margasak writes that some of the above-listed items “were stolen by researchers or Archives employees.” Whether the motives were mercenary or were simply due to that sense of entitlement that seems to be so common these days, there is no excuse for stealing something that is part of our common heritage, no matter how insignificant the document may seem.


  1. Great post Greta. I have heard of pages ripped out of deed books in courthouses, most likely by a researcher who thought that was his ancestor's original signature back in 1837. Well, maybe, maybe not! Not if the copy in the deed book was a transcribed copy, done by the clerk, who "signed" it too. The originals were returned to the parties of interest. SIGHH, and, now some clerk's hand writing is being passed off as Great grampa's signature in 1837. Sad.

  2. Isn't it awful? Microfilm covering about 30 years of the local newspaper in my mother's home town in Texas was taken, and those were the years after her family had moved there.