Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A new twist to multiculturalism

Farhad Hakimzadeh, a wealthy Iranian businessman who went on trial in November 2008 for stealing and mutilating manuscripts at the British Library, London and Bodleian Library, Oxford, has been imprisoned for two years. Mr. Hakimzadeh had a special interest in western European experiences of travel and colonisation in the Middle East from the 16th to 18th. Centuries.

Rather like another thief of archives convicted recently, Oliver Fallon, Hakimzadeh had the cover of a reputable organisation, in his case the Iranian Heritage Foundation of which he was founder and director.

Iranians in Britain have mixed reactions to their fellow countryman's activities, some seeing his criminal activities in the context of conflict between Islam and the West, others a conflict between the Persian and non-Persian sections of Iranian society.

Farhad Hakimzadeh

However, of concern to SQA is the ease with which Hakimzadeh committed his theft and vandalism, over the lengthy period of 1997-2005 or 1998-2006, according to different reports.

We asked Benedict Crumplethorne, principal spokesman of SQA, to offer his thoughts on the episode.

It seems the national institutions are not quite on the ball as regards security procedures, exemplified in this instance by the British Library. It is axiomatic in the heritage professions that no matter how trusted researchers are, the same standards of security should apply as for the general public. This is common sense, of course. I tend to suspect that the heavier presence of academic types among the curatorial staff of such institutions causes them to lack the same orthodoxy of qualified archivists, who are almost certainly not to be found at the upper levels of British Library management. Instead, they empathise with their fellow researchers.

The founder of our profession, Sir Hilary Jenkinson for whom the physical security of archives was the paramount objective, would be turning in his grave. In referring to Jenkinson, I am reminded of his injunction that archivists' judgment should not be clouded by engaging in their own original research.

I must next address some of the odd statements made by the British Library and the police. Firstly, I quote a British Library spokesman:

Theft from the British Library is an extremely rare occurrence. Because we are a research library, not a museum, we are committed to making our collections available in the interests of scholarship and research: to facilitate this an element of trust is necessary. Hakimzadeh fundamentally betrayed this trust.
I don't quite see how being a research library makes security issues different to those in a museum...say the British Museum. Do museums not make their collections available for research? Is the BL saying museums don't have security arrangements? Are they also saying they recognise different tiers of researcher, all ostensibly card carrying readers, but some more equal than others? In any case, all archive repositories exist to make their material available for research. However, the crucial sentence is the second last sentence. This seems to suggest BL staff took a calculated decision to favour Hakimzadeh, or to trust him as they put it. This policy is at best mysterious and at worst negligent.

Secondly, I refer to a comment made by Detective Chief Inspector Dave Cobb of the Metropolitan Police, that:

It is extremely difficult to detect the absence of these pages as Hakimzadeh took care to select material that only an expert would be able to identify, as early printed books are unique. The original owner might have commissioned additional illustrations, or pages might have been missing when the libraries acquired them.
This carries forward the mysteriousness of the BL's own statement and indicates careful briefing of the police by the them. All archives are unique and the material stolen or damaged in this case is no different from archives at a county record office, insurance archive, business archive or university archive. That is to say, archives are descriptively listed so as to securely identify them precisely so the documents can be identified by a researcher. Quite often these descriptions are published in the form of online databases. Unwittingly, Mr. Cobb is acting as the BL's apologist. Any use of archives requires more mental capacity than taking a lending or reference book down from the shelf in your local library, assuming they still have such things as books.

We then turned to Ellison Millinocket, our security and conservation spokesman, based in Taunton, Somerset, for some practical insights.

Documents are retrieved from secure storage areas by staff rather than taken down from the shelf, as might happen with an open access book in a local library, and should then be inspected prior to being handed over to researchers and inspected again on return by issuing staff. There is no harm in repository staff also checking material, in the repository, we all have a responsibility. In the case of bundles of loose papers, these should be counted out prior to issue and counted back by issuing staff. I query whether this happened at the BL. The process of counting out documents and then counting them back in also allows searchroom or issuing staff to visually inspect the contents and intactness of the material. Some offices weigh documents, which even allowing for absorption of water from the atmosphere, is remarkably accurate, quite apart from being effective as a deterrent.

I note The Daily Telegraph states

British Library staff believe he smuggled a scalpel into the building and positioned himself out of the sight of security cameras to commit his crimes.

I am flabbergasted that Hakimzadeh perpetrated his crimes out of sight of CCTV cameras. No part of a searchroom should be uncovered by camera or the human eye or at any rate such researchers should be required to sit in clear view of at least one camera.

We thanked Benedict and Ellison for their contributions.

Further reading

The Daily Telegraph 21 November 2008

British Library press release 16 January 2009

The Daily Telegraph 16 January 2009

The Daily Telegraph: 8000 items go missing from British Library 28 February 2005

The Daily Mail 16 January 2009

The Daily Telegraph 21 January 2009

The Guardian 21 November 2008

What drives people to steal precious books Financial Times 6 March 2009

Long-lost manuscript available to historians Derby Evening Telegraph 5 March 2009

Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know

Donald Rumsfeld February 2002

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