Friday, November 9, 2007

Reagan Library Can't Account for Thousands of Items

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, has suffered from a security breakdown that has resulted in the loss of an untold number of valuable artifacts. The Los Angeles Times has the story:

The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library is unable to find or account for tens of thousands of valuable mementos of Reagan's White House years because a "near universal" security breakdown left the artifacts vulnerable to pilfering by insiders, an audit by the National Archives inspector general has concluded.

Inspector General Paul Brachfeld said that his office was investigating allegations that a former employee stole Reagan memorabilia but that the probe had been hampered by the facility's sloppy record-keeping.

"We have been told by sources that a person who had access capability removed holdings," Brachfeld said in an interview. "But we can't lock in as to what those may be."

The hilltop complex near Simi Valley that houses Reagan's papers -- as well as the Air Force One that served as the "Flying White House" for seven presidents -- is the most visited of the nation's 12 presidential libraries. Many of those facilities are understaffed. And many are struggling to keep track of hundreds of thousands of presidential gifts, including valuable objects bestowed by foreign leaders, American folk crafts, and T-shirts and political buttons.

But, investigators said, they encountered the most serious problems at the Reagan library, a finding that may mortify fans of the late president, who often inveighed against government inefficiency.

About six months ago, an archivist was accused of stealing from the collections and was fired, said a longtime volunteer at the library who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal. "It's just awful," she said. "He was someone in a position of trust."

Of particular interest is whether the artifacts that are unaccounted for include pieces from a large collection of ornamented Western belt buckles given to Reagan over the years by admirers who knew of his attachment to his ranch.

A National Archives spokeswoman said the agency had accepted the audit's criticisms and was working to fix the problems. Some library volunteers say they were called in this summer to start a massive inventory project that could take years to complete.

The theft of historical objects from library collections has become a serious problem across the country in recent years. Against that background, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) pushed for the audit of presidential libraries. He feared that artifacts associated with former presidents might attract thieves seeking to supply a burgeoning market for memorabilia.

"This report is a wake-up," Grassley said. "These papers, records and other items have historical value and should be safeguarded for the education and benefit of future generations of Americans."

Most gifts to presidents become property of the American people, and presidential libraries use them to tell a story in ways that documents alone cannot. The gifts are considered part of the libraries' museum collections. The Reagan library, for example, has displayed some of the belt buckles given to the former president, and an exhibit of First Lady Nancy Reagan's dresses and suits will be staged this week.

The audit found that the Reagan library was unable to properly account for more than 80,000 artifacts out of its collection of some 100,000 such items, and "may have experienced loss or pilferage the scope of which will likely never be known."
This story makes me sad. I keep telling myself to go and visit the Reagan Library. Now I'm thinking I better get over there before all the valuable memorabilia is gone.

It's unthinkable that people would steal from what is essentially a national monument. Of course, I'm never one to underestimate the essential venality of human nature.