Barry Landau Isn't an Historian, He's an Antiquarian—So Let's Stop Calling Him One


Samuel J. Redman is a Ph.D. candidate in US history at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also an Academic Specialist at the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) of The Bancroft Library. He is the author of a forthcoming manual on conducting historical research in archives, to be published by the American Historical Association.

Recently, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Baltimore Sun have reported on the strange case of Barry H. Landau. Landau, a presidential memorabilia collector, has been indicted on federal charges of stealing documents from the Maryland Historical Society. His activities at the National Archives are also under investigation by an Archival Recovery Team. Numerous other archives across the United States are now reviewing their records for Landau’s name – then reviewing the material he requested for inconsistencies. The documents in question include, notably, letters signed by Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin as well copies of presidential speeches made by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Landau refers to himself as “America’s presidential historian.” While my own goal as a teacher and scholar is to expand the circle of historical exploration – encouraging students and members of the public to think historically through primary sources such as historic photographs, documents, and oral histories – Landau’s assumed title is inapt—he should not be considered a historian. Instead, he is more of an antiquarian, and, if the charges turn out to be accurate, he would fall more accurately into the definition of an obsessive and morally astray antiquarian. Unfortunately, many of the individuals ultimately convicted of this type of crime view their behavior as having only limited ethical or moral implications – the unrelenting obsession with documents or the desire to profit can result in the destruction of a critical component of our understanding of the past. Although it is impossible to know exactly how many irreplaceable historical documents are stolen from archives each year, a high-profile theft committed by an individual who claims to be a historian should give us pause long enough to consider the terms we use to describe these individuals. What is clear is that historians and archivists share a mutual concern with preserving and protecting the documents that can help us to learn about the past. The removal or destruction of archival materials through theft is antithetical to the mission of both historians and archivists.    

Antiquarians and others concerned with the value, beauty, or notoriety of historical documents or rare books will continue to play an important role in the future of historical scholarship in the United States. Not only do they fund the activities of many archives or libraries because of their passion, they also frequently turn over their collections to archives for permanent preservation and access. Antiquarian collectors, self-stylized or otherwise, should not be confused with historians who interpret the social, cultural, or intellectual meaning of primary sources – utilizing them to help construct narratives about the past. Historians actively work to advance particular arguments about the past into the scholarship and our classrooms – a professional identity shaped by centuries of practice – but rapidly changing with uncertain implications for future generations. Although both historians and antiquarians share a passion for historical documents – the value of these sources is ascribed for differing reasons. We should question and ultimately reject the label of historian as it pertains to anyone convicted of illegally profiting from the theft of historical documents.   

Unlike antiquarians, historians are less concerned with the value of the isolated, physical documents than with their potential interpretive meaning for understanding the past. Documents are notable not just because they possess a signature of a famous individual, but because they can serve as evidence allowing us to reconstruct and interpret an aspect of the past. Differentiating between antiquarians and historians is critical because it allows a better understanding of the motivations of particular individuals accused of the theft of important documents from archives. Certainly, not all lovers of books and documents fall into the trap of loving them “too much” – borrowing a phrase from a recent popular account of rare book heists. Indeed, for many scholars who admire the physical beauty of certain historical artifacts as much as their meaning, the power of these documents lies not within our ability to selfishly collect and hoard them but rather, in our ability to share them with others. Individuals falling into all of these categories are susceptible to a wide range of faults, from innocent blunders to nefarious and systematic crimes. Nevertheless, the existence of an antiquarian market that works to ascribe monetary value to particular historical documents will always allure some individuals to steal from archives. Further, while the vast majority of those who collect documents do so in an ethical manner (many bibliophiles and collectors are important supporters of archives) an obsession with historical artifacts can go too far – crossing clear moral guidelines for rightful ownership and access.            

The charges against Landau are certainly not the first against an individual for stealing documents from archives or libraries with the intent of selling them on the specialized antiquarian market. The recently bungled theft of a Pablo Picasso sketch from a private art gallery in San Francisco is a reminder that brazen thieves operate on different levels of sophistication. While the tracking of missing works of famous art represents a monumental task, the millions of individual documents in archives create an even more complex series of problems for those hoping to recover stolen documents. Individual documents in an archive, unlike paintings in an art museum or objects in a natural history collection, are typically not cataloged exhaustively at the item level. The Society of American Archivists serves as an important body for helping archives attempt to locate missing or potentially stolen items. Archivists, like their counterparts in art museums, occasionally work with the FBI and other authorities to attempt to track and locate missing documents. Historians concerned with the ongoing interpretation of primary source materials have a responsibility to assist archives in their efforts to preserve and protect these documents. Legitimate collectors, too, desire to acquire historical artifacts that have been bought and sold legally – rather than those stolen from an archive. Scholars working in archives can begin by carefully following the rules and guidelines laid out by each archive. We should be patient as archivists share rules about pencils and backpacks, as these rules are aimed at preventing exactly the type of thefts appearing in recent news stories. Instead of grumbling after a long day of unsuccessful research, we should do our best to be respectful of security checks when entering and exiting an archive.

 The work of archivists who value these collections frequently requires important acts of selflessness. Archivists give of their time and energy not only to facilitate the research of students, historians, and members of the public such as genealogists, but also to serve as caretakers for the irreplaceable documents that help us to better understand the past. This is a serious responsibility and one that we should not take lightly, especially in the wake of high profile charges against those who systematically steal documents from archives. As historians, we view the past as alive. Archives allow us to revisit the primary sources viewed by previous generations of scholars to reinterpret them based on our own modern concerns and arguments. It is critical that historians join archives, archivists, and legitimate collectors in condemning the behavior of those who steal our history from the archival record. Furthermore, by abiding by the guidelines of professional organizations and societies such as the American Historical Association and the Society for American Archivists we can work to reject the claim that individuals who steal documents from archives can rightly be considered historians.

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