Friday, May 09, 2008

Ummm

The light-fingered brigade has been at it again, exposing deficiencies in the security aspects of several major UK archive repositories.

Last year we learned that a series of major thefts of archives from the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) had taken place. The thief had targeted the Jersey Collection there and had stolen documents including letters from Queen Victoria and the first Duke of Wellington. The Islington Tribune was informed by the LMA’s parent authority, the City of London, that a security review was taking place and that Detective Inspector Joe Lock of Islington CID was asking for further information.

We await further news on the recovery of these stolen documents and the identity of the thief.

Scottish Catholic Archives

Meanwhile, in Scotland we hear the Scottish Catholic Archives has been raided by Oliver Fallon, better known internationally as a Sanskrit scholar, who has recently been convicted by a court in Edinburgh. 300 documents with a market value of £26,000 were stolen during five visits he made to that office in July 2006. Fallon adopted the normal technique of the archives thief, that of cutting or tearing off parts of pages or secreting smaller documents on his person. 132 documents are still missing and damaged documents require repairs costed at nearly £5000. The Edinburgh court learned from Fallon’s solicitor John Mulholland that he was already serving time in England for similar, apparently unreported thefts south of the border. SQA is unaware of any official connection between the LMA thefts and the Edinburgh thefts at this stage.

Oliver Fallon

Several sources place emphasis on Fallon’s story he was a postgraduate student, as though to say the Scottish Catholic Archives or its apologists need defend giving access to their archives to anyone. The issue in this instance is that Fallon was left unsupervised while he consulted the documents. It is unlikely in the extreme the public searchroom at LMA was unsupervised.

The Scottish Catholic Archives have also stressed researchers are not allowed to remove documents from the premises and must use pencils only, which is rather beside the point.

The Herald reports Fallon had also obtained documents by deception from the Catholic Archives in London although we are not aware of such a repository.

In an unrelated breach of security of a different kind, 29 forged documents have been inserted into 12 government files at the UK National Archives by Martin Allen, an enthusiast of Hitler’s Germany, in order to support spurious or unsubstantiatable claims. At least one forged letter was written on a blank page from an old book, a classic forger’s trick. The Times quotes Sir Max Hastings as saying it is hard to imagine actions more damaging to the cause of preserving the nation’s heritage than wilfully forging documents designed to alter our historical record and John Fox states how on earth were these documents slipped in? This is something that the National Archives has to answer. Whoever got these documents in must have done it in a very clever, sneaky way, so you can’t entirely blame the security. But maybe there are questions with the security.

The National Archives is reported as saying new security procedures had been put in place.

We asked Ellison Millinocket of Taunton, Somerset, the outspoken security and conservation spokesman for SQA, to offer some comments.

It really beggars belief. A searchroom left unsupervised? Have the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland no concept of security? I notice their entry in British Archives, 4th. Edition, states they allow access to bona fide researchers. It is all very well asking for a letter of reference but all researchers should be invigilated by trained staff when original and irreplaceable documents are being consulted. It tends to be the case archival material has high market value because it is unique and may bear valuable postmarks, autographs and stamps. The Standard for Record Repositories states:

When in use the study area should be constantly supervised by sufficient staff to provide an effective level of invigilation of the whole area, under the direction of a professionally qualified archivist (section 4.9)

I am not aware if the Scottish Catholic Archives employs a qualified, professional archivist. This would make a huge difference. The Standard also states:

Beyond the very smallest, record repositories accordingly require the services of one or more professionally qualified archivists with training or experience relevant to the kind of records held (2.2 (a))

and

In the case of a small repository where no appropriately qualified professional staff can be employed, the governing body should formally seek regular advice on such matters as acquisition, storage, conservation and cataloguing from a professionally qualified archivist in another repository or from The National Archives (which provides guidance on both public and private records) or, in Scotland, from the National Archives of Scotland and in Northern Ireland from the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland (2.3)

Thus it would appear several national institutions are implicated. My final advice is always bear in mind the heritage professionals’ axiom, that thieves tend to be the most trusted of our users. There is no such thing as a bona fide researcher and the strictest invigilation is required at all times.

We thanked Ellison for his comments and next asked Dr. Pochin Sturge of Wigston Hall, Leicester, consultant anthropologist to SQA, to explain what makes individuals such as Fallon and Allen tick.

Actually, these behaviours are relatively common in modern western society, which has confused cultural heritage and cultural icons with economic wealth, through the mass media impact of the auction trade, Ebay and popular television programmes like the Antiques Roadshow on the one hand, and the substitution of economic status with privileged access to and interpretation of our cultural inheritance on the other. Knowledge is power, so to speak.

The thief of archival documents achieves several ends; he acquires economic betterment based on his discernment, he relocates cultural material to a more deserving custodianship justified by intellectual elitism and overcomes an irrational jealousy associated with the academic mentality by obviating the need to consult vital primary source material by going through an intermediary.

As for the forger, whether in dealing with the superior or inferior academic mentality, there is a tendency to abuse the legitimate custody of archives not by theft or vandalism but through the more subtle and perverse frustration that official archives do not contain evidence supportive of a thesis. By putting the cart before the horse, this inconvenience can be overcome and a new reality can be created. If the documents don’t exist, they jolly well ought to. Finally, in this regard, the deviant mind can be reassured by having other researchers fall into the trap of accepting his forgeries as evidence, through the creation of a supportive network of the like-minded people. Society thus rectified can be more habitable for the forger and those with similar behavioural abnormalities.

You have my hearty sympathies that such cultural behaviours affect your most worthy profession. Please be on your guard.

We thanked Dr. Sturge for his analyses.

In a sequel to the thefts from Scottish Catholic Archives, we learn in a new report that the collections may be transferred to Aberdeen University. It is telling that a Scottish Roman Catholic spokesman has stated the material could be better preserved at the university.

Further reading

The Times

Standard for Record Repositories

BBC News

The Scotsman

The Herald

Edinburgh Evening News 19 May 2008

Press Association

Glasgow Daily Record 20 May 2008

Advaita Vedanta Research Center

Letter to The Guardian by Prof. Philip Murphy, University of Reading, 7 May 2008




The Convention brought together a self selected group of the European political elite, many of whom have their eyes on a career at a European level, which is dependent on more and more integration, and who see national parliaments and governments as an obstacle ... Not once in the sixteen months I spent on the Convention did representatives question whether deeper integration is what the people of Europe want, whether it serves their best interests or whether it provides the best basis for a sustainable structure for an expanding Union. The debates focused solely on where we could do more at European Union level... None of the existing policies were questioned... Consensus was achieved among those who were deemed to matter and those deemed to matter made it plain that the rest would not be allowed to wreck the final agreement.

Gisela Stuart MP, British Labour Party representative on the EU. ‘The Making of Europe's Constitution’ Fabian Society, London, 2003

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