ACRL/RBMS Guidelines Regarding the Security of Special Collections Materials

Approved by the ACRL Board of Directors September 2009; revised January 2019; revised June 2023.


These guidelines identify important issues that collections administrators should address in their efforts to ensure long-term access to and preservation of special collections. While directed primarily towards institutions in North America, many topics are applicable in other countries.

Terms and Definitions

  • “Special Collections” here refers to repositories containing rare books, manuscripts, archives, and/or other materials preserved in institutions and collections dedicated to the preservation and study of cultural heritage. “Library” is understood to mean any special collections repository.
  • “Booksellers” refers to those who buy and sell such materials professionally.
  • “Library Security Lead” or "LSL" may refer to a single individual or a group of individuals, as explained in Part 1.1.
  • “Security” refers to measures taken to safeguard the authenticity of, long-term preservation of, and access to collections.[1]
  • "Security Policy" refers to one or more analytical and quantitative decisions, which guide the creation of task-level plans and institutional infrastructure.
  • “Security Plan(s)” refers to the detailed procedures and steps staff should follow in specific circumstances.

Goal of Guidelines and Statement of Positionality

The primary goal of these guidelines is to assist special collections staff in preserving and effectively stewarding cultural heritage materials for current and future access and preservation, objectives which are inherently tied to the promotion of user accessibility, safety, and rights. Risk is inevitable, and while it is not possible to eliminate it entirely, these guidelines seek to minimize it when possible and offer suggestions for dealing with security risks when they inevitably arise.

These best practices and recommendations are created by a group of librarians, archivists, and antiquarian dealers working under the auspices of the Rare Books and Manuscripts section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, a division of the American Library Association. Committee members serve on a volunteer basis, and work in a variety of public, private, and independent libraries, archives, and antiquarian businesses in the United States and Canada. A full roster of the committee for the current and previous years is available at Through the course of this revision, members engaged with a wide variety of resources on security, emergency preparedness, policing, community relations, criminal justice, and legal issues related to special collections libraries, museums, and archives.

The guidelines are written with an eye towards both comprehensiveness and scalability, and we hope they will be broadly applicable in most special collections settings. Nevertheless, this document is aspirational. Various factors may make some of these recommendations impossible or undesirable for some organizations. The committee encourages all those with responsibilities for the care of culturally significant materials to use this document to create a policy that aligns with their professional commitments to make collections broadly and equitably accessible.

Statement Regarding Application of Guidelines

The members of the RBMS Security Committee acknowledge the role that institutionalized racism and bias play in security practices at individual, organizational, and global levels.

Institutions may be bound by policies of parent organizations that may seem difficult to shift. They should nevertheless carefully consider how implementing any of these recommendations affect individuals and partner organizations in terms of race, gender identity, ability, and class, and move to intentionally prevent harm being done in the name of keeping collections secure. We have a duty to ensure the long-term availability and preservation of collections housed in our institutions for future generations, but we have an equal duty to create sustainable, non-violent communities where all feel welcome to pursue enjoyment and intellectual engagement.

With that in mind, the RBMS Security Committee urges specific, intentional language in institutional policies outlining how and when outside law enforcement will be contacted, an emphasis on de-escalation and mediation for internal security teams, and written policies that don’t rely on an individual’s subjective judgment of another individual as “suspicious” when it comes to implementing security plans. Special collections staff and security personnel should strive to be as welcoming as possible to all visitors. Staff can make certain that collections are secure without relying on aggressive or intimidating tactics such as hovering or reprimanding visitors. Institutions should support staff with flexible, considerate policies that are adaptable to a broad array of individual and collective needs, including exhibitions, individual research, and group events, while making these policies and the reasons behind them clear to visitors.

Provide clear way-finding directions, maps, or other guides, and mark where security or information stations may be found. As in the Facilities section of these Guidelines, post signage at the entrance to any areas under surveillance.

Part I: Security Measures

In order to ensure the long-term preservation of, and access to, cultural heritage materials, special collections staff have an ethical obligation to take proactive steps in keeping collections intact and secure from theft, loss, and damage.[2]

Booksellers and other vendors of cultural heritage materials must also concern themselves with security, as they may encounter stolen or missing items in the marketplace. Special collections staff and vendors should work together to familiarize one another with their security measures, build stronger community networks, keep one another informed, and generally collaborate to prevent the loss of cultural heritage items.

Developing a written security policy and appointing a single person or group to lead its development and implementation will both help an institution's staff become more aware of the legal and procedural contexts in which they work, and to be more knowledgeable about security measures at their workplaces.

1. Library Security Policy

1.1 Library Security Policy Staffing

Institutional leadership should foster a general awareness of the security risks accompanying the storage, usage, and movement of special collections items. While collections security should be every staff member's concern, an individual or small group, referred to in this document as the Library Security Lead (LSL), should have the authority to help develop and carry out the organization’s security program. The LSL should have direct experience working with special collections as a librarian, archivist, or other variety of special collections worker. It is crucial for the LSL to have gained an understanding of the unique security challenges presented by cultural heritage materials gained within a context of working with them directly, and so it is preferable for those appointed as LSL to have this experience, over a professional who possesses only experience with broader security issues. The LSL should establish and maintain professional connections with colleagues in similar positions at other institutions, and any other relevant organizations or networks.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • Appoint one or more persons as LSL, depending on institutional staffing levels and existing expertise.
  • Consider providing, or encourage the LSL to seek out, training opportunities to build expertise in security issues and leadership.
  • Formally assign security responsibilities via an official job description, or in another way that allows those tasked with development and implementation of security policies the ability to make decisions, exercise judgment effectively, and undertake professional development training.
  • Collaborate with LSLs at other similar or nearby institutions to share policies, resources, and ideas.

1.2 Security Policy Development and Management

The LSL should develop a written policy on the security of the collections in consultation with administrators and staff, legal authorities, and other knowledgeable persons or entities. The policy should include a standard operating procedure on dealing with missing materials and related security problems, and it should be available to all staff. It is recommended that any policies providing guidance on suspected thefts in progress prioritize human health and safety, followed by retention of collection items.

Institutions that choose to involve law enforcement in security measures should ensure that parameters for contacting law enforcement are carefully and clearly laid out in the security policy. Escalating to contact law enforcement too quickly or too often can potentially harm the institution’s patrons and wider community, and this should be considered while drafting the security policy. The policy should be kept up to date, with current names and telephone numbers of institutional, law enforcement (if applicable), and other emergency contacts.

The institution should review the security policy on a scheduled basis (annually or otherwise) to ensure that institutional needs continue to be adequately addressed. The LSL should be involved with the development and implementation of larger institutional security measures, as these may affect the security of special collections materials. The LSL should also be involved with institutional emergency and disaster planning.

As a part of this policy development, institutions should provide all staff with relevant training so that they are able to implement the policy effectively, equitably, and humanely. Institutions should be certain to include training that supports the security policy, such as anti-discrimination and bias awareness, in regular training schedules.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • The policy may be a part of the institution's broader emergency management plan.
  • Consider making part or all of the emergency and/or security plans public to increase transparency. While some details may need to remain confidential, sharing as much as possible builds trust and increases awareness of security issues.
  • If one does not already exist, develop an anti-discrimination policy to aid in the implementation of the security plan.
  • Bring in a security consultant to assist in developing plans and in determining any major threats to the collection. When engaging a security consultant, the institution or LSL should use caution in evaluating the consultant's competence or ability to perform the work. The institution should investigate the security consultant's background and references thoroughly. Experience with security in libraries, archives, and/or museums should be mandatory. Consultants ought to provide references from past institutional clients who can speak to their expertise and effectiveness.
  • The LSL should oversee the development of security plan(s) to implement the security policy and make plans available to all staff members. They should conduct regular training and reviews of these procedures for all staff members to ensure everyone understands the plan and their responsibilities.
  • Maintain up-to-date plans congruent with all legal requirements establishing staff response to a suspected theft in progress. Such plans should include basic guidelines for goals, who should respond, what information should be recorded, and under what circumstances outside law enforcement could be contacted.
  • The LSL and/or special collections administrators should review the security plans with any/all of the following, as applicable: their institution’s human resources, legal counsel, unions and/or other relevant institutional bodies to ensure plans are not infringing on staff or visitors’ rights.
  • The LSL should regularly conduct an overall security audit. They should advocate, as needed, for changes to any potential weaknesses with other institutional officials (legal, risk management, public safety, the director, et al.) and educate other officials on the importance of keeping the collections secure.

1.3 Adapting for Special Projects and Circumstances

Prolonged closure of any kind will fundamentally change security needs and should include a review of any new measures required to ensure the security of collections.

1.3.1 Unexpected Closure

Develop a basic plan allowing the LSL and other staff with security and facilities responsibilities to adequately ensure the safety of collections, especially if staff are prevented from coming on site. Consider including:

  • Lists of locations of key collection items.
  • Priorities for evacuation of collections.
  • Notes on potential trouble areas related to past leaks or other environmental concerns.
  • Agreed-upon protocols for routine checks on the collections and secure spaces housing collections.
  • Names and/or position titles of those who need to have access to this information, and when/how they might need to access it. Decide if and when this information should be available to select emergency response personnel.

Documentation and protocols should be flexible enough to account for multiple types of events that could precipitate closures or occur during closures, including biological hazards, natural disasters, and civil unrest.

1.3.2 Planned Closure

When planning for a closure, the LSL should draw up a project-specific collections safety plan in consultation with other security and facilities staff. The plan should be discussed and cleared with any administrative or project leads so that all staff involved in managing the project agree to necessary safety measures. This collections safety plan should be developed as early in the project planning as possible. During any closure, the Library Security Lead should remain in close contact with on-site staff to be able to answer any questions and provide guidance.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • A flexible plan for unexpected closure could serve as a base template for any planned closures but should be updated at least annually.
  • Consider how communications might work during an emergency in both planned and unplanned closures. Access to paper and electronic documentation and/or disaster mitigation supplies may be limited in both situations, so plan accordingly.
  • If regular special collections staff is prevented from being on site regularly, it may be advisable to have an emergency phone schedule, or at least establish who any on-site staff will contact in the event of an emergency.
1.3.3 Planned Construction and Collection Moves

The Library Security Lead and special collections administrators must ensure that all collections safety needs are considered and addressed in the design and planning of new spaces, especially those meant to house or provide access to special collections materials. Collection moves require a safety plan that is separate from any planning for permanent new space. A collection move safety plan should address factors such as external facilities, packing needs, and temporary collections housing, as well as protocols for outside contractors and other external personnel. During renovations or other facilities work, the Library Security Lead should create a schedule to ensure that a special collections staff member is on-site whenever contractors or other workers need access to collections spaces.

2. The Facility

Any location where special collections are used or stored, whether a building, unit, or area that is a primary service point or off-site storage or workspace, should be reviewed for safety considerations (see Section 6.2.2 for more on working with special collections outside of a dedicated research or storage space). Special collections materials should typically only be available for visitors in a secure reading room, classroom, or another area where special collections staff can easily view and assist users. Visitors should ideally enter through a designated reception area where they can securely store personal belongings and outerwear.

2.1 Access Points

There should be as few entry and egress points as possible, within reason. Fire and emergency exits should be strictly controlled and alarmed, and not used for regular access. Visitors should have regular access only to designated areas, not to work areas or stack space. Any visits to such areas should be recorded, whether in a log or otherwise. If there are areas with different levels of security within the secure collections storage area(s), such as a vault, staff should develop plans for what is stored here, who has access, and why.

2.2 Keys

Any special collections facility with secure areas should have a plan or system to manage keys or electronic keycards to these areas. Depending on institutional size and staffing levels, it may be advisable to employ one or more of the following:

  • A controlled check-out system.
  • Grant access to secure areas only to staff who need regular access.
  • Keep master keys secured.
  • Update or replace locks on a planned schedule.
  • Limit distribution of combinations or alarm codes for secure collections storage areas, and change them on a planned schedule.
  • Install proprietary keyways (i.e. unique keys and locks available only from a single manufacturer).
  • Create documented procedures for security when staff members leave employment (i.e. turning in keys, changing passcodes or alarm codes, etc.).

2.3 Cameras

Institutions may choose to install security cameras that cover reading rooms and secured space access points. When appropriately maintained and used, cameras and recordings can be helpful tools in incidents of theft.[3] As the use of cameras involves legitimate privacy concerns for both staff and visitors, this decision should not be undertaken lightly, and special collections staff should develop a policy that takes any local or state laws into account, including ethical considerations outlined in the ACRL Code of Ethics for Special Collections Librarians.

Institutions should post video surveillance signage at the entrance to any areas under surveillance, as well as posting this information online as a part of any preparatory information for visitors. When deciding whether and for how long to retain recordings, special collections staff should consider preservation and budgetary needs, researcher and staff privacy, security of the footage, and how the institution will navigate any potential law enforcement requests around such footage; then make a retention schedule.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • Create clear internal policies outlining who can access security footage, how they would view it, and under what circumstances it would be permissible.
  • In staff areas, consider the impact on staff morale as well as any internal institutional policies or collective bargaining agreements regarding staff surveillance. If institutions choose to use cameras, prioritize key areas such as entrances and exits.
  • Include information in registration policies for researchers about how long security footage is kept, who has access, and in what circumstances it might be made available to law enforcement.
  • Regularly review the security standards for the server or other access points where security footage is kept.

3. Staff

Staff, including students and volunteers, should be chosen in compliance with institutional guidelines for hiring and committee assignments. Institutions may wish to keep a dedicated space for staff’s personal belongings, such as bags or briefcases, outside of secure collections areas; to ask staff not to bring personal collection items or other materials that may be easily confused for institutional collections into work; or require bag checks for anyone leaving the building. Training staff in security measures and increasing their awareness should be a high priority of the LSL. Such training should ensure that staff are aware of their own legal and procedural responsibilities in relation to security, as well as their and researchers' legal rights when responding to potential security situations.

3.1 The Question of Insider Theft

Over the past thirty years, theft by institutional "insiders'' (staff, volunteers, and students) has become an issue of increasing concern to many. Authors of literature reviews related to theft in special collections environments, published since 2012, agree that—although many perceive "insider theft" as a significant problem, particularly among special collections workers—few statistically meaningful studies exist. This research indicates that unsubstantiated remarks about insider thefts should be viewed with


While the LSL should remain aware of insider theft as a possibility and build reasonable mitigation into security policies, it cannot be an institution's sole focus in building security policies. An atmosphere of trust and shared concern for the collections is the best guarantee against theft by staff. Close and equitable supervision and an internal system of checks and balances that holds all staff and volunteer workers accountable is essential. Wages commensurate with local costs of living will help ensure that staff can comfortably meet their needs, along with robust benefits.[5]

Suggestions for implementation:

  • When considering bag checks, institutions should ensure equitable implementation, and consider staff morale as well as any internal institutional policies or collective bargaining agreements regarding staff privacy and personal belongings. If bag checks are put in place, staff conducting such searches should be professionally trained, including on what actions to take should their inspection reveal a theft in progress. See Part II, Section 2 for guidelines.
  • The Library Security Lead and special collections administrators should ensure that staff are familiar with these guidelines, and how they might apply specifically to their institution.
  • New staff should receive security training in a timely fashion as part of their orientation process, and staff should be refreshed on security policies and procedures on an ongoing basis. Consider developing scheduled annual training.
  • The Library Security Lead and special collections administrators should be familiar with the institution's personnel policies and ensure that the institution's human resources staff are aware of security needs.
  • Policies regarding staff supervision, storing and/or searching personal belongings, or other similar security checks should apply equally to all staff and administrators.

3.2. Facilities Staff

Facilities staff include maintenance workers, custodians, building security personnel, and many others. They play an important role in collections security. If facilities and building security staff are on site frequently, they may be the first staff members to encounter an emergency situation.

Collections staff should seek to build a workplace culture where there is a shared interest and sense of ownership in the preservation of collections, and where staff who do not work directly with collections feel welcomed and encouraged to show an interest, as this will lead to a more robust, collaborative implementation of safety policies. Likewise, security and facilities staff should be involved in creating and testing security policies, as their expertise and experience can provide crucial insight for a functional plan. For all staff, a greater understanding of the risks and value of the collections will help strengthen communication, speed, and the effectiveness of their response and, as a result, the institution's overall response.

3.3. Contractors

A facility may bring in outside contractors for a variety of purposes, including consulting, repair, maintenance, renovation, and construction. A special collections staff member and/or building security staff member should be present when outside contractors work in a space where collections materials are present. See Section 1.3, Adapting for Special Projects and Circumstances, for further information and ideas for implementing guidelines around projects.

4. Researchers

Research and access are at the heart of cultural heritage work. Special collections administrators must carefully balance the responsibility of making materials available to researchers with the responsibility of ensuring the preservation and long-term availability of materials. Institutions are encouraged to review any proposed access or security measures for how they might impact one another, and how they will ultimately affect mission fulfillment within each institution's circumstances.

4.1 Researcher Registration and Recordkeeping

Special collections security policies must take legal, institutional, and ethical requirements into consideration when establishing practices for the collecting and keeping of researcher information. The LSL, special collections administrators, and relevant staff should all be familiar with any applicable laws governing personally identifiable information and their concurrent responsibilities. Access to registration and circulation records should be restricted to as small a group as possible while abiding by applicable laws. Practices must not violate applicable confidentiality laws, even in the course of investigating possible thefts. Consider the legal and ethical implications of sharing library records with law enforcement and determine a plan for response if records or recordings are requested by local or federal law enforcement bodies. See the ALA suggested guidelines: How to Respond to Law Enforcement Requests for Library Records and User Information.

Registration for each researcher using special collections materials should be required. Institutions should decide what information is necessary to collect, and may request details such as name, address, and institutional affiliation (if any). Photo identification or some other form of positive identification is helpful to establish identity, though the institution should consider alternatives to government- or institution-issued identification.

Staff must be able to identify who has used which materials by keeping adequate circulation records, whether paper or electronic. These confidential records should be retained for as long as permitted by law. No matter their format, circulation records should unequivocally link a particular researcher to a specific item.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • Government-issued IDs are a barrier to access for many under-served researcher populations.[6] If checking IDs, determine how your institution will accommodate researchers who arrive without government- or institution-issued identification, and ensure that reading room staff are aware of these accommodations.
  • Determine what information is essential to clearly identify researchers, collecting no more information than necessary. Indicate in registration forms how long records are kept, which information is retained, and who has access.
  • Include a transparent statement on the circumstances under which records would be shared with law enforcement.
  • If registration and circulation records are kept digitally, regularly review the security standards of the server on which the records are kept.

4.2 Reading Room Practices

Each researcher should be oriented to the policies governing the use of the collections and the important role each researcher plays in maintaining and preserving the collections for future researchers. Post all policies prominently in areas where researchers work and make them available on the institution’s website. The institution should require that all researchers read and acknowledge an agreement to abide by institutional policies.

Reading room staff should limit the personal materials researchers can bring into secure consultation areas. Limits could include restrictions on notebooks (size, type of paper), briefcases or backpacks, outerwear, reference books, and sheets of paper. Lockers or other secure locations should be provided for any items not permitted. If institutional policy includes inspection of any personal items going into and leaving the reading room, be aware of search laws, which vary by country, state, or institution. Post signage in relevant areas alerting researchers that staff members may inspect items taken into the reading room.

The arrangement of the reading room should provide staff with a clear view of all researchers at all times. Avoid placing obstacles in places that restrict staff view. Each researcher should have a working space large enough to safely accommodate collection materials of varying sizes, as well as personal items (such as laptops or paper for notetaking), without overlapping personal and collection items.

Institutions should limit the amount of materials researchers can access at one time. The maximum number of items or containers should be determined based on staffing levels and room layouts so that reading room staff can easily observe what materials are in use. Staff should check the condition of items before circulating and when they are returned. Researchers should return all materials before leaving the reading room for an extended period of time, even if they plan to return later.

Researchers should not exchange items with one another without staff oversight and appropriate record-keeping, and sharing of materials should ideally be planned and coordinated with staff in advance. If two researchers need to use the same item for unrelated projects within the same period, staff should have a plan to manage circulation in a way that protects researcher privacy and allows for maximum access to the materials.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • Supply readily identifiable paper and pencils to researchers for note taking, in order to differentiate these items from collection materials.
  • Integrate all necessary researcher acknowledgements, including handling policies, reading room rules, and an acknowledgement of fair use and copyright law, into the registration process for a more streamlined process. The institution should require that all researchers read and legally acknowledge an agreement to abide by institutional policies.
  • The LSL or special collections administrator should seek the advice of the institution's legal counsel or other appropriate legal adviser when developing researcher policies.
  • Provide a handling orientation that frames preservation and security as a joint effort by staff and researchers to make collections continually available now and in the future.
  • Consider making researchers aware of policies around sensitive, private, and/or legally protected information in the collections. Researchers should be encouraged to notify staff if they come across materials that include such information.
  • If searching personal material entering and exiting the reading room, all reading room staff should be trained on what actions to take should their inspection reveal a theft in progress. See Part II, Section 2 for guidelines.

5. Outreach Activities

Outreach activities are defined here as those taking place in-person, where researchers, members of the public, or other institutional guests come into close contact with collections materials outside of normal reading room interactions, whether on-site or in a partner location. Security measures in such settings should be tempered to each individual institution's needs and requirements, relying as in other areas on cataloging, description, and general preservation and handling policies to create an environment conducive to long-term preservation.

5.1 Instruction and the Classroom

Security and handling policies governing reading rooms should also be applied to classroom settings. If there are different security needs for classes (for example, if a certain number of adults are required to accompany a certain number of minors), these should be relayed to participants in advance. General handling guidelines should also be distributed to participants prior to the session and reviewed by everyone before they come into contact with collections items. Staff should make clear who may handle materials during the session and explain institutional best practices for handling. See section 4.2, Reading Room Practices, for more details on handling guidelines for researchers and class participants.

Special Collections staff may wish to limit the number of items shown in a class session or the number of participants based on available staffing, space, or other factors. Criteria that staff might consider when planning a class include number of items; type and condition of the materials; number and age of participants; and the instructor’s level of experience in working with fragile or delicate items.

At least one special collections staff member should be present in the room while such materials are being used. Special collections materials should not be left unattended in classroom settings. As in the reading rooms, institutions might wish to consider utilizing security cameras anywhere visitors are examining special collections materials.

The institution should keep thorough records of the items used for classes, and utilize circulation records, as in a reading room setting. Staff should review the condition of materials carefully before and after the session. Materials in use should be marked according to the guidelines in Appendix II prior to the start of class.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • Develop classroom policies that incorporate existing reading room rules and security practices. Such policies should stipulate classroom handling and staffing requirements, as well as note any limits on the number and/or type of collection items that may be requested. Collections staff should consider whether they need restrictions on group sizes, or if their security needs might change with larger or smaller groups.
  • As in the reading room, special collections staff should frame classroom or handling restrictions as an invitation to faculty and students to partner with special collections staff in keeping materials safe and accessible for future research.
  • Institutions should make their policies accessible and transparent on their websites and review them with the participants prior to the classroom session, making sure to offer any explanations or answer questions about their policies as requested.
  • Institutions may wish to provide an orientation to new faculty and staff on institutional best practices for teaching with special collections materials. These training sessions can serve as a form of outreach.
  • If it is not possible to have all the participants in an instruction session register as researchers, staff can instead retain a list of participants for the sessions either via a sign-in sheet or a class list prepared in advance of the visit
  • Consider flagging especially fragile items before a class so that staff can more closely monitor its use during an instruction session.

5.2 Special Events

Security and handling policies governing reading rooms, classrooms, and other consultation spaces also apply to special events such as open houses, fundraisers, and donor tours or visits. See Section 4.2, Reading Room Practices, for more details. Collections staff should work together with any security and facilities staff, as well as any other colleagues such as administrative support staff or donor relations staff, to confirm guidelines ahead of the event and make sure that the policies are conveyed to attendees in an appropriate and clear manner.

Collections materials should ideally be kept in areas that are separate from areas where visitors are consuming food and drink. The number of special collections staff present should scale with the size and format of the event, as well as the amount and type of material present. A minimum of two staff members is recommended.

During events with donors, special collections staff should make every effort not to forgo institutional policies for convenience or perceived positive relationships. As with contractors, all non-collections staff and visitors must be accompanied on tours of secure spaces by a collections staff member. Ideally, no one outside of collections, facilities, and security staff will visit secure collections spaces.

5.3 Exhibits

Security guidelines should be included in exhibition policies. Plans to ensure the safety of collections items should be revisited and confirmed with the LSL for each new exhibition and include any applicable notes on individual items. Loan agreements, contact information, and other relevant paperwork must be readily accessible to both collections and security teams in the event of an emergency.

During installation or breakdown of an exhibition, the LSL, building security officers, and/or other designated staff should monitor areas of egress. Ideally, only those who are responsible for installing or removing items, delivering or picking up loans, or who have other business directly associated with the installation or breakdown of an exhibition should travel through this area, and a log should be kept where all parties sign in and out. As with instruction and reading room policies, security needs should be dictated by the size, layout, and staffing capabilities of each institution.

Please consult the ACRL/RBMS Guidelines for Interlibrary and Exhibition Loan of Special Collections Materials for additional guidance on loans and exhibitions.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • When possible, exclude bags, outerwear, food, and drink from exhibit spaces. To facilitate this, the institution may provide a secure location with lockers where visitors can stow personal items, as well as plenty of trash and recycling receptacles outside of the exhibit space.
  • Maintain a logbook with sign-ins and sign-outs during installations and de-installations of exhibits.
  • Designate areas in the building(s) where children can engage and provide signage asking visitors not to touch cases or displays where necessary.
  • Focus security cameras on materials as opposed to visitors or attendees or utilize other measures such as pressure-sensitive alarms on case openings.

6. Collections Workflows

Backlogs of unaccessioned, uncataloged, or unprocessed collections put institutional collections at a dramatically increased security risk. Adequate staffing with workers who are able to document and describe an institution's collections is fundamental to collections retention and security.[7] The members of this committee urge against tolerating these risks in the strongest possible terms, and enjoin all those responsible for staffing, directing, and funding this work to make it the highest priority.

6.1 Acquisition and Accessioning

Special collections usually acquire materials through purchases, donations, gifts, or record transfers from other individuals or organizations. Institutions must know what was acquired, when, and from where. Accurate records are fundamental to security, as they may establish provenance and legal ownership. Keep an up-to-date, written plan that explains the steps for acquiring and documenting new collections materials. See Appendix I, Guidelines for Acquisition and Accessioning Procedures for further implementation suggestions.

6.2 Transferring Material

As the nature and value of collections items changes over time, some items kept in open stacks may become vulnerable to loss. For advice on transferring material from open to closed stacks, refer to the ACRL/RBMS Guidelines on the Selection and Transfer of Materials from General Collections to Special Collections.

Establish a regular review of open stacks materials to assess whether “medium rare” materials should be transferred to special collections. A recent loss or act of vandalism, either in the facility or at another institution, may give an indication of a building area, type of material, or subject matter that will be the target of future loss or mutilation. If appropriate, transfer materials related to those already lost or mutilated to a more secure area.

When transferring materials between special collections locations or vendor services (e.g., shipping materials for conservation work or for digitization), consider a variety of factors in establishing policy, balancing the need for both preservation and security.

  • Special collections objects must be properly packed according to agreed-upon standards and protocols.
  • Collections must be protected from the elements using appropriate housing while loading and unloading a transport vehicle, or when rearranging outside vehicles at pick up locations.
  • Generate and keep sufficient records and manifests for containers and shipments that document the chain of custody during transport. Verify all delivered materials against manifests within 24-48 hours of receipt to make sure everything is accounted for and that there is no damage.
  • Carefully select and approve transport vendors, paying particular attention to established security and handling requirements.
  • Pick-up requests must originate with the owning collection or designated units. Return requests must go back to their originating storage location.
  • When the requestor is not the same as the recipient, the requestor must consistently alert the recipient of the shipment.
  • Materials should not be left in trucks overnight; collections (packed or unpacked) must be left in a controlled and stable environment.
  • Secure shipping or transfer containers with numbered zip-tags, or in other ways which make the opening of a container visible to the recipient.
  • In case of an external transfer or deaccessioning, units should have a “checks and balances” procedure in place where more than one person verifies what is included in a package or shipping container before it is sealed and moved out of a secured facility.

6.3 Interoffice and Outgoing Mail, Trash, and Recycling

Institutions might consider adopting a standing policy of checking outgoing mail and packages before they are sealed, as well as trash and recycling. If adopted, any such policy should be implemented consistently at all levels. Special collections staff should work with facilities and security staff, if applicable, to assign checking containers on a schedule which is close to mail or trash pick-up schedule.

6.4 Description and Cataloging

Administrators of special collections must be able to positively identify the materials in their collections in order to establish loss and to substantiate claims to recover stolen property. This process may differ for books, manuscripts, and archival collections.

Adequate description for security purposes includes keeping adequate accessions records, maintaining detailed cataloging records, including copy-specific information, and maintaining condition reports and records.

  • Archival collections: keep adequate accessions records, create collection-level records, and create and maintain finding aids with adequate physical and intellectual control according to best practices and national standards.
  • Book collections: use the catalog record to describe copy-specific characteristics (e.g., binding, marks of previous ownership, naturally occurring imperfections in the paper, defects) and bibliographic information that helps to distinguish among editions, issues, and states. Create machine-readable records for local public access and international bibliographic databases. Participate in bibliographic projects that record detailed bibliographic descriptions when possible.
  • Digital collections: born-digital materials or digital surrogates should be transferred to and/or maintained on secure institutional servers as soon as possible upon creation or acquisition. Avoid reliance on outdated or obsolete hardware. Create multiple backups and offline copies, stored in different secure locations. For further suggestions on implementation and building an electronic records policy, see the Smithsonian Institution Archives' "Preservation Strategies for Born-Digital Materials."[8]

In certain cases, unprocessed or uncataloged material can safely be made available to researchers with additional precautions such as more stringent supervision of use, developing workflows for reviewing material on demand, a reduction in the number of items made available at one time, and preliminary marking of items. Repositories should document procedures and workflows that allow for researchers to safely access unprocessed or uncataloged material when appropriate and apply this plan equally for all researchers. Consider criteria carefully; the presence of uncontrolled restricted material, fragility of material, potential privacy concerns for the people documented in an unprocessed collection, or other factors may mean that unprocessed or uncataloged items cannot safely be made available.

Records with notes about copy-specific features used for identification purposes in case of loss should be maintained separately from other catalog records or curatorial files in a secure location. These records should not be made available to researchers or the public. In addition, the materials themselves should be made identifiable by marking them following the Guidelines for Marking (Appendix I), by applying other unique marks, and/or by keeping photographic, digital, or microform copies where possible.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • Prioritize eliminating backlogs of unaccessioned, undescribed, and/or unprocessed collections.
  • Ensure adequate descriptive and processing staffing (e.g. catalogers, archival processors, metadata librarians, etc.) relative to existing collections size, needs, and anticipated future collections growth.
  • Maintain and regularly review a documented workflow for how staff with descriptive/processing responsibilities will access and store collections/items on which they are actively working.
  • Clearly document the conditions under which unprocessed or uncataloged materials may be accessed by visitors or researchers.
  • Maintain complete acquisitions records, including antiquarian catalog descriptions or references.
  • All electronic metadata about collections (including shelf lists, catalog records, finding aids, etc.) should be updated and backed up in the cloud, offsite, and/or in a geographic location separate from the primary server whenever possible to protect the data from threats (such as fire, flooding, etc.), accidental deletion, or bad actors.
  • If possible, create a server disaster recovery plan with your institution’s IT department.
  • Keep careful, detailed records of deaccessions. Refer to Appendix II for guidelines on marking deaccessioned material.
  • Lists developed to fulfill the requirements of insurance policies should be kept current and reviewed regularly.

6.5 Inventories

Conduct regular in-person and digital inventories of both cataloged/processed and uncataloged/unprocessed collections. A simultaneous reconciliation of the shelf list with the collections is recommended. Inventories may be conducted in small stages if a large-scale process isn't possible.

Maintain up-to-date records of items that cannot be located and recheck these on a scheduled basis. Consider reporting missing items which are not located after several searches to appropriate agencies, noting their status as missing rather than stolen. For further suggestions and resources, see Part II, 3.2 below.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • Maintain a shelf list in a secure area with precise information on where each item should be physically located. If the shelf list is the library catalog and/or finding aid database, it should be secure from tampering.
  • If the institution has areas with differing security levels, such as a vault, create a plan to determine what items belong there.
  • Establish a schedule for regular inventories/shelf reads.
  • Develop a plan to review items marked as missing regularly, and to check whether they are still missing during regular inventories/shelf reads.
  • When conducting an inventory, consider breaking the work into segments on a randomized timeline. Proceeding through the collections in a predictable manner may allow for the temporary replacement of stolen materials. Having different staff do the inventories each time, or having staff work in teams, can further randomize the process.

7. Legal Information

Institutional administration and the LSL should maintain a physical or digital file of relevant state, federal, and local laws and regulations regarding theft of cultural heritage materials, privacy, digital storage of personally identifiable information, and other applicable areas. This file should be easily accessible to staff as needed. This information should be kept current and incorporated into all relevant policies to ensure that the institution is in compliance.

Suggestion for implementation:

  • Refer to RBMS Security Committee: State Laws for laws specific to your geographic area.
  • Keep files with legal information and policies in an area accessible to staff who might need to access it.
  • Collaborate with any relevant offices your institution might have, such as Risk Management or Legal, to maintain compliance with relevant laws.
  • Make sure to review legal documentation on file regularly so that it is kept current.

Part II: Responses to Theft

1. Formulation of Situation-Specific Action Plan

As with a disaster plan, an institutional plan for dealing with potential theft increases the chances of a quick and well-organized response. The LSL, in concert with appropriate collaborators such as administrators, public relations personnel, security personnel, law enforcement, and legal counsel should formulate a course of action that includes:

  • For those institutions whose security plan includes law enforcement: a list of which law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction, under what circumstances they should be called, and how to contact them.
  • Notifying associations that maintain stolen and missing materials databases, and other appropriate networks of potential theft (see Appendix III, Selected Resources Directory).
  • Notifying local and regional booksellers and appropriate specialist sellers.
  • A full audit of all collections and, if feasible, transfer of vulnerable items to a more secure location.
  • Plans for working with an institution’s risk management office or insurance carrier to arrange for valuations of missing or damaged materials.
  • Preparation of regular communication to staff about progress in the case, consistent with the investigation’s integrity.
  • Preparation of a communications strategy for the public. This could include news releases and responses by authorized institutional representatives to questions posed by the news media, or simply messages to release on social media. If relevant, all staff should be instructed to refer inquiries to an authorized spokesperson.
  • Maintenance of internal record of actions taken during the case's progress, from its discovery to its conclusion.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • Consider reviewing a “Response to Theft in Progress” action plan regularly.
  • Law enforcement agencies can include in-house security, state or local police, the FBI, U.S. Customs, Canada Border Services Agency, and/or Interpol, depending on the situation. Establish clear parameters regarding who should be contacted based on certain criteria, such as suspicion of materials crossing state lines or leaving the country.
  • For institutions with designated communications or public relations staff, establish lines of contact and develop the communication strategy with them so that all parties know what will happen in the event of a theft or other security incident.

2. Response to a Theft in Progress

If staff suspect that a theft is in progress or has just occurred, both a witness and the LSL should be called. If possible, the subject’s actions should be captured on a security camera. Follow institutional policies and applicable state laws. Due to the variety of situational possibilities and local or regional laws concerning active theft, each institution should have their own specific plan in place.

Library staff members are not law enforcement, and they cannot and should not take on law enforcement responsibilities. Confronting someone suspected of theft is a possibility, but any confrontation should focus on de-escalation and return of materials, rather than punitive measures. Institutions should train all staff in de-escalation tactics. If someone threatens physical violence, ensure human life and safety first, and focus on the return of any stolen rare materials later. When staff are unclear as to whether or not a theft has occurred, they should thoroughly inspect any relevant collections material to ascertain possible loss or damage.

3. Subsequent Response

3.1. Gather Evidence

The LSL should notify administrative officers, institutional security personnel, and, if necessary, appropriate law enforcement personnel, and compile a list of missing items related to the suspected theft. Other units and local repositories should be alerted as appropriate. After these immediate steps have been taken, items similar to those that are missing should be checked. In consultation with the personnel previously notified, all available evidence related to the incident should be gathered. This evidence may include, but is not limited to:

  • Detailed, copy-specific descriptions of missing materials.
  • Any relevant video files or electronic security system logs.
  • Chain-of-custody documentation for missing materials (including call slips or copies of electronic records).
  • Evidence of unauthorized physical access to restricted areas.
  • Reports of any missing cataloging or circulation records and database tampering.
  • Reports on any indication of systematic patterns of loss of materials.

3.2. Report to Appropriate Organizations and Agencies

The library should inform local booksellers of the institution’s collecting areas and establish a procedure for rapid communication in the event of a suspected theft. Sellers with knowledge of the collections may be able to recognize, or at least be suspicious of, certain materials when they are offered.

Missing items which are believed to have been stolen should be reported promptly to appropriate electronic mailing lists or electronic media outlets (for a complete listing and details see Appendix III, Selected Resources Directory). A search of auction sales records may be advisable if there is reason to believe the material has reached the market.

Communicating about the loss of items to peer institutions and organizations in the field, including libraries with similar holdings that may be targeted, or booksellers who may work with the types of materials missing, is vital for the mitigation of future loss. Regardless of whether the materials are returned or legal action is pursued, these guidelines strongly recommend that institutions report any loss of items to the special collections and bookseller communities as soon as possible to share this information. For full transparency, the institution may wish to notify any researchers, donors, or members of the public who would be most affected in a timely fashion.

3.3 Potential Legal Action

RBMS prioritizes and supports the safe return of collections materials over punitive measures.

3.4 Arrange for the Return of Located Materials

Once materials are identified, it is necessary to confirm that they indeed belong to the institution. This process is facilitated by the record-keeping recommendations in Part I, section 6.

If the materials have reached the market and are in the hands of a new owner, recovery may be a difficult and time-consuming process. This is especially true if the materials are in a foreign country, where different legal systems and laws of title regarding the transfer of stolen goods are involved. Law enforcement and legal counsel will be able to provide advice on these issues. If a bookseller or auction house sold the items, enlist their assistance in the recovery effort.

While in some cases authorities may be able to seize stolen items, this is not usually possible. Negotiation may be required, and it may prove necessary to compensate the current owner to obtain the timely return of the items. Depending on the circumstances, it may be possible to request that a bookseller or auction house participate in compensation, but this may not be enforceable.

Keep careful records of the stolen and returned items and all other aspects of the theft in perpetuity.


[1] See "security, n.". OED Online. December 2022. Oxford University Press. (accessed February 02, 2023). See also Dictionary of Archives Terminology, s.v. “security,” accessed January 23, 2023,

[2] See ACRL/RBMS Code of Ethics, "Preservation and Security,"

[3] Gregory Seppi and Dainan Skeem, "Picking Up the Pieces: Library Processes and the Theft of Rare Materials," RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, vol. 21 no. 2, Fall 2020.

[4] Todd Samuelson, Laura Sare, and Catherine Coker, "Unusual Suspects: the Case of Insider Theft in Research Libraries and Special Collections," College and Research Libraries: vol. 73, no. 6, November 2012.

[5] For further information on the relationship between relative wages and employee theft in retail environments, see C.X. Chen and T. Sandino, "Can Wages Buy Honesty? The Relationship Between Relative Wages and Employee Theft," Journal of Accounting Research 50: 967-1000.

[6] Research on barriers to access of government identification can be found in studies on voter ID laws such as Matt Barreto, Stephen Nuño, and Gabriel Sanchez (2007) “Voter ID Requirements and the Disenfranchisements of Latino, Black and Asian Voters.” Paper presented at the American Association of Political Science, Annual Conference, Chicago, IL;; Keesha Gaskins and Sundeep Iyer (2012), "The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification." The Brennan Center.; and Kathryn O'Neill and Jody L. Herman (2020), "The Potential Impact of Voter Identification Laws on Transgender Voters in the 2020 General Election" Williams Institute, UCLA.

[7] See also Principle 9 in Describing Archives: A Content Standard from the Society of American Archivists: “Each collection within a repository must have an archival description… Repositories should deploy their resources in a way that permits them to describe all of their collections as part of their normal business operations.”

[8] Smithsonian Institution Archives, "Preservation Strategies for Born Digital Materials,"

APPENDIX I - Guidelines for Acquisitions and Accessioning Procedures

I. Documentation

In order to establish legal ownership of purchases, gifts-in-kind, and transfers, documentation must be gathered and created. Keep both photocopies and an electronic copy of this documentation and any email correspondence related to the acquisition.

The documentation should include when applicable (but may not be limited to):

  • A reference to the formal title of the legal body that is acquiring the material.
  • The name and address of the previous owner of the material and of any agent.
  • A brief description of the material.
  • A signature confirming transfer of title.
  • The method of acquisition.
  • Any restrictions pertaining to the records.
  • Evidence of a paid invoice.
  • A signed and countersigned Deed of Gift
  • Correspondence pertaining to the acquisition, such as between a curator and a bookseller.

Original documentation of paperwork must be kept in a secure fireproof location. Electronic copies on a secure server are highly recommended. Maintaining duplicate records in hardcopy or electronic format at a site separate from the originals is desirable.

II. Process

Staff should follow a documented procedure for physical movement of the material, starting with the moment the material reaches the hands of any staff member (whether that is via pickup from a donor’s home or delivery of a parcel). The involvement of multiple staff members in this process, including formal receipt from more than one staff member, will ensure multiple witnesses to the completeness and condition of an item and provide protection for all involved.

While these early steps are equally important to establishing an item’s provenance within the institution, they vary with the method of acquisition, institutional policies, and other factors. The recommended steps below are intended to be more broadly applicable but may benefit from adaptation.

Create an accession record for new materials immediately upon receipt of the physical objects. The record should include:

  • An accession number. The accession number should be unique and different from shelf-marks for cataloged items. It serves as the primary identification for the incoming item and as a temporary placeholder of the item in its physical location until a permanent shelf-mark or call number is assigned. An accession number should be immediately attached to the item or recorded on it if institutional policy allows markings on the item. The method used for labeling and marking an object, or group of objects, will depend on its material and condition, as referred to in Appendix II.
  • The author/creator/donor and title of the new acquisition.
  • Date of item publication, if applicable, and other copy-specific information that could add to item value or help identify it later.
  • Initials or full name of the accessioning staff member

Processing or cataloging staff should inspect the item or survey the collection to gain an understanding of its condition and contents, and consult documentation, such as accession records, dealer descriptions and inventories, deeds of gift or purchase agreements, etc. A survey of collections including multiple items should note:

  • whether or not material is in folders, whether or not folders and boxes are clearly labeled, and whether or not there is any existing organization of materials within boxes;
  • types of material – correspondence, writings, office files, etc. – and special formats – audio-visual material, computer disks, etc.; and
  • any immediate preservation or other security concerns.

If items appear to be missing from the collection, a staff member should check the accession file, as well as any inventories or other dealer- or donor-provided documentation that accompanied the acquisition. The processing staff should also notify their supervisor and the curator, either of whom may have information about the apparently missing item(s).

Processing or cataloging should be performed in a secure monitored area or at least in a building or space with exit control. Materials which are not marked with institutional identification are at very high risk of theft. It is preferable to limit access to pre-processed materials to fewer staff members, but not limit to only one person. The library should maintain an appropriate security system in its processing spaces and develop and maintain security practices and procedures designed to minimize the risk of theft or damage to collections material before it gets to the stacks. See section 6 of the Guidelines for more detailed recommendations. Archival appraisals by curators and processing archivists should be completed upon transfer of custody of the material.

APPENDIX II - Guidelines for Marking

I. Introduction

The decision to mark rare materials, and how, is an ongoing discussion within the special collections community. With the exception of individual items in archival collections, the failure to mark collections items compromises security and increases the likelihood that materials will not be returned if stolen. This is most crucial for items that are not easily distinguished from one another, such as printed books with multiple extant copies, but may not be practical across all formats. The following guidelines are intended to aid special collections institutions in deciding how and where to mark their materials to deter theft and increase the ability of potential buyers in the broader special collections community to identify stolen materials.

Even the most conservative marking program results in permanent alteration of materials. Choices concerning marking depend on aesthetic judgment and a commitment to preservation balanced against the need to secure materials from loss and to assist in their identification and recovery. Each repository will have to weigh those competing needs. As with other security methods, all institutions will have different capacity for marking materials. Some variety of marking is better than none.

II. General Recommendations

  1. Mark any materials that are not easily identified as unique with both visible and hidden marks.
  2. If making two marks is not possible and an institution must choose between visible and hidden marking, visible marks are best. Readily visible marks are intended to both deter potential thieves and aid in the recovery of materials; hidden marks are primarily intended to assist in the latter and may only be found by those who routinely look for them.
  3. Place marks in a location far enough from the margins where they will be difficult to remove, alter, or easily hide with a mat and/or frame.
  4. Ensure that the mark identifies the institution clearly.
  5. Choose a permanent, indelible, neutral-ph ink for visible marking, such as the one developed by the Library of Congress, more information about which can be read at the following link: (see Resources section).
  6. Retain confidential internal documentation of marking strategies and policies, and review as needed.
  7. Maintain a history of de-accessioning procedures– including if no established process existed during certain periods of time. Document past procedures, markings, and significant discard events.

Suggestions for implementation:

  • Where to mark: Marks of whatever type must be placed directly on the material itself. Ensure that all discrete or removable parts are marked. Marks placed only on a front pastedown in a book, on a portfolio that holds prints, or on some type of backing material are rendered useless if that element is separated from the item. Especially in the case of flat items, such as maps and broadsides, it is important that the marks be applied before any backing procedure is done. Consider individually marking each separate plate, map, chart, or other such item in a printed volume be marked individually. Whenever possible, discrete items in collections of individual manuscripts, bound or unbound, should also be marked.
  • When to mark: Marks should be applied to all items when they are accepted into the collection. Unmarked items may remain in storage or a cataloging backlog for years with no indication that the repository owns them. Despite the fact that some items may present extremely difficult and complicated decisions about marking, the process should never be deferred. It is strongly recommended that programs also be instituted to mark retrospectively materials already in the collections.
  • Visible and hidden mark design: Visible marks should not be generic (e.g., "Rare Book Room," "Special Collections," "University Library," etc.) but should rather make plain the repository to which they refer. It is recommended that the visible marking consist of an institutional identification symbol. Hidden marks do not have to be marks at all. They merely have to provide some positive ownership indication that is extremely difficult if not impossible to detect. Microembossers, for example, produce a mark that is difficult to detect. Modern technology also provides non-invasive marking techniques, such as microphotography, that do not leave any mark on the item itself yet serve as positive identification. Other technologies, such as microtaggants, may also be appropriate for this purpose. Generic secret marking systems, such as underlining a word on page 13 of every book, should be avoided as the sole means of such marks.
  • Deaccessioning material: Repositories should never attempt to remove marks, even in the event that the material is deaccessioned. No system has yet been devised for canceling marks that cannot be easily imitated. Keep permanent records of deaccessioned materials, whether marked or unmarked. If items are going to a new owner, make sure the item is accompanied by documentation making the transfer clear. Place stamps or notes in items indicating that they have been deaccessioned, but do not attempt to cancel or remove previous ownership marks.

APPENDIX III - Selected Resources Directory

The Selected Resources Directory maintained by the Security Committee is available at this URL:

About the Guidelines

The original version of the guidelines was completed by the RBMS Security Committee in 2008 and approved by the ACRL Board of Directors in 2009. It replaced the separate “Guidelines for the Security of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Other Special Collections” and “Guidelines Regarding Thefts in Libraries.” The 2009 “ACRL/RBMS Guidelines Regarding Security and Theft in Special Collections” were revised in 2019. The revised “ACRL/RBMS Guidelines Regarding the Security of Special Collections Materials” were approved by the ACRL Board of Directors in June 2023.