Improving Collection Security – an International Challenge

European collection security coordination is now continued under the aegis of the Consortium of European Research Libraries, whose Collection Security working Group I chair.

The British Library has long been proactive in promoting internationally the challenging issue of collection security. At the LIBER conference in London in 2008 we were instrumental in setting up a confidential network for exchanging information of importance for collection security between European libraries. With the Royal Library in The Hague, we also played a leading role in creating a wide-ranging collection security survey, helping member organisations to identify areas where they might usefully concentrate their efforts on improving collection security.

European collection security coordination is now continued under the aegis of the Consortium of European Research Libraries, whose Collection Security working Group I chair. In addition to running the confidential network where information is exchanged, we have organised a workshop in Warsaw in 2013 and most recently in Rome, in association with the Vatican Library, in May 2015.

It was against this background that we were delighted when Norman Palmer QC proposed a conference to be held here at the British Library, The Written Heritage of Mankind in Peril (Friday 26 June, 2015), with a specific focus on the complex issues surrounding the return of stolen items across jurisdictions. We cooperate closely with the police and with the book trade, so working with an organising group consisting of lawyers from a number of countries was a good opportunity for extending and enhancing our own network and that of other libraries.

The British Library has a vast collection which is in heavy use, more than a million items being requested annually by readers, and digitisation projects have over the last three years alone dealt with over 150,000 items from our printed collection alone. Use of the collections of course presents a point of risk, but it also constitutes a point of audit: if an item is required by a user or for a project and is found not to be in place, it is investigated by the Library’s Collection Security Group.

The Group also constantly monitors the use of the collection by staff and by readers, keeps our processes and procedures under review and up to date, and it reports annually to the British Library Board. We have not detected incidents of staff thefts from the British Library for more than a generation, and thefts by our users is fortunately very rare too.

Our policy is to prosecute whenever we find evidence of theft or damage to our collections. We see this public transparency as integral to our security policy.

There is no room for complacency, however, which is why we have strong internal governance around collection security, and why we devote resources to leading and participating in international cooperation. We want to help spread best practice, while also learning from good and bad experiences in libraries elsewhere.

The conference on 26 June is a great opportunity for us to continue to stay abreast of developments – this time with the particular angle of a legal perspective on the return of stolen items and its associated complexities.

Kristian Jensen

Head of Collections and Curation

Previously published on and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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