How Museums and Libraries Lose Stuff

Mr. Redman is a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. He studies the history of museums in the United States. As a museum employee in Chicago, St. Paul, and Denver, he was frequently asked to find missing objects.

On Wednesday, October 24th, the Washington Post published a story with the headline, “Materials Missing at Library of Congress.”  Like many readers, I dashed to my computer mouse, thinking that an Oceans 11 style heist had taken place in our nation’s capital.  Perhaps a robotic device remotely operated by terrorists had stolen Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence.  Or maybe a machine gun wielding Russian spy had lifted Alexander Graham Bell’s lab notebook. 

No such luck for excited museum geeks, lovers of action-adventure movies, or Washington Post beat writers hoping to sell more newspapers.  In fact, museums, libraries, and archives in the United States lose items in their collections on a regular basis.  Why?  The simple answer is that many of these institutions are grossly underfunded and understaffed.  The more frustrating answer for those of us who care deeply about these collections is that they are cared for by human beings who are capable of making mistakes.  Though certain members of congress would love to blame the incompetence of museum and library administrators, it is more likely that the incompetence of congressmen is to blame.

The congressional hearing which examined the results of the inventory at the Library of Congress, which examined books, monographs, and bound periodicals, noted that 17 percent of the materials requested could not be found.  Many in Congress would perhaps love to pin these results on poor management, holding the librarians themselves directly and fully accountable for the status of the collections.  Indeed, the Washington Post article notes that the ranking Republican on the committee, Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (Mich) said in a statement that the number of missing objects, “is unacceptable, and a clear indication that we must reassess how we manage this Nation’s priceless collection that exceeds 130 million items.”

Those working outside of museums, libraries, and archives, have been shocked at similar findings in the past.  In 1990, when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed, it required that museums in the United States conduct an inventory of collections potentially falling under the guidelines of the law, which included sacred objects and human remains.  This was, however, essentially an unfunded mandate. Museums struggled to complete their inventories on time (many applied for extensions).  Upon the completion of these massive inventories, many learned for the first time what those working with collections already knew, a significant number of museum objects had gone missing. 

Often 100 years plus of poorly designed filing systems, constant movement of collections, and a trail of human errors had taken their toll on museum collections.  An intern in 1980 could place a Cheyenne necklace on the wrong shelf, and nobody would notice the error until a scholar twenty years later arrives at the museum to conduct a study on Cheyenne jewelry.  Perhaps the object was traded to another museum and the appropriate curator forgot (or neglected) to write it down.  These things happen, unfortunately.  Computer filing systems, even the most advanced, can point a librarian, archivist, or collections manager in the wrong direction if the original data is entered incorrectly in the first place.

Government officials need to understand the monumental task assigned to those caring for collections in museums, libraries and archives.  Collections managers, librarians, and archivists are often combating a long history of limited funds, in addition to a long history of human error and outmoded systems.  Before pinning the blame on the librarians and archivists who work at the Library of Congress, congressional officials themselves should examine their own record of caring for our nations’ heritage.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 11/8/2007

Sorry, I was thinking of something else, in another link I had just been viewing, the CNN transcript with Podesta and Lindsey does not involve Chris Matthews.

Maarja Krusten - 11/8/2007

"Reagan Library Can't Account for 80,000 Artifacts," in today's Los Angeles Times, at
and Associated Press story at;_ylt=AlQeP39lHCDh1ad0H7Kns1Gs0NUE

Interesting story, with NARA's spokewoman stating forthrightly that the agency takes the missing items and the theft allegations seriously and is looking for ways to correct the problems. Dealing with White House gifts can be challenging for a number of reasons, including the volume, the quality of records about them (both from within the White House at the time of receipt and once at NARA), and the number of staff available to deal with them. I joined the National Archives as an employee on December 6, 1976, right before Gerald R. Ford moved out of the WH. My first assignment was to work as part of a small team at the Archives which was preparing Ford's head of state, domestic and Bicentennial gifts for shipment from Washington to Michigan.

Here's a link which provides background information on the Reagan gifts:
This explains why Presidents keep only a tiny percentage of gifts, the dollar limits on the value of gifts they may keep individually by law, etc.

For anyone interested in getting into the real nitty gritty of the records that a WH generated about gifts received by the President, in this case Gerald R. Ford, see

As with everything surrounding Presidential Libraries these issues are complicated. Here is a link to a transcript where some Clinton administration officials (Bruce Lindsey, John Podesta) discuss this with Chirs Matthews. See the second half of the discussion at

Julie C Swierczek - 11/8/2007

As a library employee, I can attest that underfunded and understaffed libraries and museums are a big part of the problem. Leaving aside the issue of materials being lost or misplaced during major moves, something much more insidious happens each day: in libraries, patrons re-shelve their own books. Frequently, there are locations throughout a library for patrons to deposit books that they will not be checking out, but some patrons, perhaps in a misguided attempt to be 'helpful', insist on re-shelving their own books. It is one thing if a book is placed in the wrong spot in a bookstore; it is another problem entirely if a book is accidentally re-shelved a few books away in a library collection. Most large libraries do not have the funding, and therefore the necessary staff, to complete regular shelf-reading to assure that the collection is in order. If a patron requests that mis-shelved book, of course the library staff will attempt to look in the general vicinity to see if the book was mis-shelved. However, patrons should keep in mind that, at most major academic libraries, book searches are conducted by undergraduate student employees, and they might not be very thorough in searching for lost materials. The solution? Please, when you visit a library, find out where you are to put books that you have pulled off the shelf but do not plan to check out. Do not attempt to re-shelve them yourself. (Even if you are an expert on the classification system, you should not re-shelve the items for another reason - most libraries keep a count on the number of items that are used but not checked out.)

Of course, adequate funding would be ideal. There are people who are very good at shelf-reading, and they enjoy maintaining the order in large collections. Unfortunately, even if a library advertises such a position, the pay is so low that one would make more money working in a position that does not require the ability to read. Congress can whine all it wants, but it has left the Library of Congress staff in tatters, and they have no one to blame but themselves. (For a laugh, look for statistics on the numbers of items checked out to the members of Congress, and how long they've kept them. A good deal of our missing national collection is being hoarded by the very people who complain that it is unavailable.)

History News Network