Guardians of our heritage: vulnerable and vigilant

A sad tale has been unfolding here in Baltimore. From the library of the Maryland Historical Society to the Baltimore City Jail and a federal courtroom, two arrested and accused thieves, guilty by their own admission, are being ushered through the justice system. The story now bouncing around the media has lessons and cautions for all of us.

Barry A. Landau pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing thousands of important historical documents from East Coast libraries and historical societies. His assistant, Jason James Savedoff, pleaded guilty to theft in October. They were arrested after a staff member of the Maryland Historical Society alerted police to their suspicious behavior.

How can Mr. Landau, a self-styled "presidential historian" with a share of the national spotlight, march down a path to disgrace and dishonor?

Large collections of valuable and irreplaceable American historic materials are in private hands. While institutions struggle to compete, collectors, armed with deep pockets, take home important documents and objects. It is very important to remember that these collectors preserve, research and share this material, an essential and high-minded service throughout both the public and private history community. A few, however, get caught up in what the astute American observer Alexis de Tocqueville branded the "bootless chase of that complete felicity which is forever on the wing." The quest for "ownership" and attention can take collecting into dark places.

How could our nation's array of libraries and archives be so vulnerable to wholesale theft? Old and honored can also read as out-of-date and even decrepit. But the great majority of our respected history libraries are far from decrepit. They do an amazing job protecting their collections.

Recent financial challenges at the Maryland Historical Society have caused setbacks affecting staffing, collections management and public services. Still, a devoted and hardworking staff (one librarian has 30 years of service under his belt) is again providing the bridge to a better future. A nimble and resourceful set of thieves proved that they could defeat the best institutional defenses. Our staffers, however, ended the threat with common sense and the confidence to act on careful observation. I and the other Maryland Historical Society leaders could not be prouder.

So — why should we care so much about these old documents? These historic resources are our collective lifeline to the past. Flowing in the continuum that is human history, we need that lifeline to avoid living forever in the here and now. Our world is filled with libraries and museums because our ancestors are still with us to help us understand who we are. Our heritage belongs to all of us, and we should treasure our rewarding conversations with previous generations.

Can we protect our heritage in these vast, often underfunded collections? The answer is a resounding "Yes." This recent (and thankfully rare) experience has taught us all to step back and fine tune our rules and resources. Our capable library and security staffs will ensure that we move into the future with confidence.

The Maryland Historical Society, located in the west end of the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood, invites you to come down and see its library and museum for yourself. We want you to sample its attractions designed for Maryland history students of all ages and interests. In the process, you will discover Maryland's greatest treasure house of history.

Burt Kummerow is president of the Maryland Historical Society. His email is

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