Archives reluctant to beef up security following theft

Dalhousie University and Mount Saint Vincent University react after police recover university owned artifacts

Mount Saint Vincent University student Hayley Ewing studies in the MacDonald special collections room at MSVU.
Mount Saint Vincent University student Hayley Ewing studies in the MacDonald special collections room at MSVU.

Archivists at Dalhousie University and Mount Saint Vincent University say that their institutions have no immediate plans to increase security following this week’s discovery of multiple artifacts that were stolen from them.

“We want to encourage researchers’ use of the collections. We are a publicly accessible institution. We want to encourage research by students, faculty and general public. If we tighten up our security to the point that it would be restrictive, people would find it, perhaps, uncomfortable,” says Dalhousie archivist Michael Moosberger.

Moosberger says he does not expect new security measures to be introduced at Dalhousie since theft is not a serious issue for their archives. He explains he does not want the public to feel uncomfortable when visiting special collections and archives.

RCMP are working to identify more than 800 stolen artifacts recovered from a home in Fall River on Jan. 18. Corporal Scott MacRae estimates the artifacts’ total value at more than $500,000.

Last summer a traffic stop led to the search of the home of 51-year-old John Mark Tillman, MacRae says. During the stop, officers found a letter from 1758 written by General James Wolfe in Tillman’s car. After months of investigation the letter was confirmed as Dalhousie University’s property.

Moosberger says Tillman was a frequent visitor at the university archives and estimates the value of the Wolfe letter to be approximately $18,000.

The letter was identified by Dalhousie as missing in 2009. Moosberger believes it was missing before then, but it is impossible to be certain since an inventory of the collections is not regularly conducted.

Trevor Corkum, a spokesperson for MSVU, says the university was contacted Monday about four books recovered by RCMP at the Tillman home. One book is a rare edition of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” which is thought to be the one missing from the university’s MacDonald collection. Corkum says  the book’s estimated value is $45,000, but some copies have sold for more. The four books have not yet been officially confirmed as MSVU property.

Since 2009, 30 books have gone missing from the MacDonald collection, he says.

Dalhousie Archivist, Michael Moosberger, reads statistics from his files stating that over 2800 items were retrieved from the Dal archives and special collections last year.
Dalhousie University Archivist, Michael Moosberger, reads statistics from his files stating that over 2800 items were retrieved from the Dal archives and special collections last year.

“We would love if (the missing collection pieces) popped up. Anytime we lose something it’s of concern but these have special value because of the historical connection… They are a great resource for the community and students so we’d love to be able to continue to share these with the community.”

Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” along with three other books missing from the MacDonald Special Collections, were reported stolen in April 2009. Security cameras have since been installed in the MacDonald Special Collections room.

Terry Paris, the collections development librarian at MSVU, explains the MacDonald room is open to the public but the collections inventory is locked in cabinets.

Paris says there are discussions about improving security for MacDonald special collections, but nothing has been officially decided.

Tillman has been charged with four counts of possession of stolen property. Police will finish retrieving items from the Fall River home today but about another 200 items have been recovered from around Halifax Regional Municipality, which police believe are linked to Tillman.

“The investigation is ongoing and it’s a huge undertaking for the police,” MacRae said. “So the police will still be working on this for weeks and months to come and we’ll see if it leads to more charges or not.”

Police continue to contact public and private collectors to identify the recovered artifacts.