A hallmark of American democracy we tend to take for granted is that records kept by the government belong to the people. At the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and its satellite locations, the general public has access to millions of documents, maps, charts, photographs, reels of film and video or sound recordings. If you are a student researching a paper or an amateur genealogist sleuthing family roots, you are just as welcome at the archives as filmmaker Ken Burns, who made the chance discovery while digging through boxes of Civil War records that his great-great-grandfather Anthony Burns was a Confederate soldier.
But the fact that these records are available for each of us to see and touch has also attracted crooks. Items pilfered from the archives include the Wright brothers’ airplane patent, maps for the bombing attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, telegrams sent by Abraham Lincoln to his battlefield generals and numerous presidential pardons. National Archives investigator Mitchell Yockelson says the helpful vigilance of history lovers is the best hope of recovering the missing treasures. “If you see a document for sale on eBay or at an antiques mall that looks like it belongs in a public archive or museum, please let us know,” Yockelson says. Tips for spotting stolen documents are at www.archives.gov/research/recover and investigators can be reached at MissingDocuments@nara.gov or 800-786-2551.