Book Keeper

Burns Librarian O'Neill edits volume detailing how to protect library holdings from theft and damage

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Burns Librarian Robert O'Neill was skeptical when he received a call one day in 1991 from a man identifying himself as an Irish sea captain who was offering 1,000-year-old Irish grave slabs and other antiquities for sale.

"What he described to me on the phone immediately aroused my suspicions," O'Neill recalled. "His claims that the stones had been in his family since the days of Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 left a lot to be desired."

O'Neill was correct in his suspicions. A check with museum officials in Ireland confirmed that grave stones fitting the description had been stolen from an ancient monastic site on the Irish island of Inchcleraun.

In a cloak-and-dagger-style operation, O'Neill joined with FBI and Irish authorities in mounting a "sting" that exposed an Irish criminal ring that had been stealing and selling priceless antiquities.

"The case was unusual in the sense that it led to international intrigue," said O'Neill, "but it is not all that unusual for museums and libraries to be offered stolen property. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is."

Burns Librarian Robert O'Neill (left) and Internal Audit Director William Chadwick. Both wrote chapters for the book. (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
O'Neill tells the story in "Sting! The Irish Stones Caper: A Case Study in International Cooperation Involving the Recovery of Stolen Antiquities," a chapter in a new book he has edited on library security. The book, Management of Library and Archival Security: From the Outside Looking In , offers expert advice on the safeguarding of valuable collections against theft, environmental conditions and natural disasters.

Contributors include a former FBI agent with extensive experience in library thefts, a preservation specialist and an archivist with extensive conservation experience. Boston College Internal Audit Director William Chadwick wrote a chapter, "Special Collections Library Security: An Internal Audit Perspective," examining the institutional risks posed by white-collar crimes of theft or embezzlement. Another chapter, "Collections Security: The Preservation Perspective," was written by Beth Patkus, a former field service representative of the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover and the wife of Boston College Archivist Ronald Patkus.

Constant monitoring is crucial in protecting against theft or natural disaster, O'Neill said. "Vigilance is the key word here," he said. "If you anticipate these problems, you can prevent many from happening."

O'Neill said the need for libraries and archives to maintain emergency plans was made clear by the recent flood that damaged thousands of books and documents at the Boston Public Library.

The Boston College Libraries have detailed emergency plans to be followed in the event of disaster, said O'Neill, who recalled being summoned to Burns on New Year's Night in 1997 and on Thanksgiving Day in 1987 after pipes in the library had burst.

"You have to be prepared for any kind of emergency," he said. "It could be fire, it could be flood, it could be someone trapped in an elevator. You just have to be prepared in advance."

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