Risk Versus Benefit

by Nancy Freeman

(Received an Honrable Mention in SAA's 2018 Archives Short Fiction Contest)

“It’s missing?” Anne asked graduate assistant Cora Johnson. “You’re sure?”

“I’ve looked for ten minutes. I can’t find it,” Cora replied. “I checked the whole bay, just in case it got miss-shelved.”

“Oh I’m sure that’s probably what happened,” Anne said. “You wait up here. I’ll go take a look. You know how a second set of eyes helps, and besides, it couldn’t have just walked off.”

Midwestern University’s archivist Anne Anderson left her office adjacent to the research room on the third floor and walked down the three flights of stairs to the archives in the basement. She quickened her pace as she reached the second floor landing. Rounding the corner of the first floor, the main entry to the building, Anne practically ran down the last flight of stairs. She badged into the basement area and sped through the short corridor to the door of the archives. Anne’s hands shook as she pulled on the clip ring at her waist to badge into the archives. She spoke softly, “What a Monday. I’m sure Cora just missed it. It has to be here.”

Anne walked directly to the Spacesaver shelf holding the Marybeth Meadows collection. She mentally counted: two standard letter size archival boxes, space, and four more standard boxes. Anne’s gaze returned to the space and she put her hand on the shelf to confirm what her mind worked to comprehend. In the open space should be a long, narrow six-inch high archival box holding the most valuable item in the archives: an Oscar.

Marybeth Meadows, a 1941 graduate of Midwestern University, began acting while a student. She credited theater professor Augustus Poole with teaching her much of what she knew about acting. Meadows moved to California after graduating with a degree in theater. Her first role in the 1943 film Come Hither, My Love garnered Meadows glowing reviews, an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and a win of the coveted gold statue.  

After a successful movie career with two more Oscar nominations, Meadows became known for her advocacy on behalf of homeless children. Meadows strongly supported Midwestern through monetary donations and bequeathed her papers and the Oscar to the University Archives and Special Collections.   

Anne slowly walked up the three flights of stairs while her mind raced to remember when she last touched the Oscar. She had sent Cora down to the archives to pull it for an undergraduate history class at 4:15 that day. Everyone loved to see the Oscar, a universal icon that impressed and elicited excitement.  

Midwestern’s Archives and Special Collections occupied several floors of a hundred-year-old mansion named Johnson Hall that sat on the edge of the small campus. Renovated in 2006, the first floor served as a campus meeting space and special occasion reception area. The second floor consisted of classrooms and a staff lunchroom while the archive’s research room and offices occupied the third floor. Johnson Hall’s basement held the archives. Anne often gave tours of the building for classes or donors and explained that both the door to the basement and the archives always remained locked, with a select few allowed pass badge access.  

Back in the research room, Anne talked with Cora and Amy Jones, another graduate assistant, both of whom comprised Anne’s staff. She told them the Oscar appeared to be missing. In an attempt to quell her own panic, Anne tried to be reassuring: surely it was just miss-shelved and they would find it. The three went down to the archives and divided the shelves into three sections, each checking every shelf and box.  

Now and then Anne called, “Did you find it?” and every time she heard back, “No, not yet.”

As she came close to finishing her section, Anne’s stomach started to hurt. She kept thinking, Where is it?


Steven Smith, a senior theater performance major and psychology minor at the university, often thought of the Oscar as he went about his day. He replayed in his mind when he first saw it in Theater 341: Famous Thespians. The class came to the archives for a tour and instruction session on using primary sources. Anne highlighted several collections and spent most of the time speaking of alumni Marybeth Meadows. As she talked, Anne donned a pair of white cotton gloves. Steven couldn’t remember what she said but just as the class's attention span started to wane, Anne opened the box and lifted up the Oscar. The class oohed and ahhed as one. Steven’s heart raced and he broke out in a sweat as he thought, I must have that.


Back upstairs after the unsuccessful search, Anne asked Cora and Amy to complete several tasks. Which of the two graduate assistants last entered the archives? She also needed the names and dates of researchers from the last few weeks. Anne went into her office and closed the door with the intention of making phone calls. She sat at her desk and rubbed her forehead, a nervous habit. Anne took deep breaths to relax her churning stomach and soon, feeling calmer, opened the bottom drawer of her desk. She reached into one of two open bags of candy and took out an individually wrapped piece of Dove dark chocolate.  

Anne felt much better after three pieces of chocolate and reached for the phone. Then the magnitude of the theft hit her. She also realized subsequent paperwork and meetings would consume her for the foreseeable future. Anne sighed, took her hand off the phone, and opened the bottom drawer of her desk for another piece of chocolate.

Eight months earlier Anne met with Midwestern University’s risk management staff for a routine insurance review. Anne asked for an appraisal of the Oscar in Meadows collection. Sandy, a risk analyst, and Stewart, her supervisor, assured Anne that Midwestern’s insurance policy covered all collections in case of theft or damage from fire. Then Stewart and Sandy began asking questions.  

“Who knows the Oscar is here?”

“You use it for classes?” That statement said with surprise and raised eyebrows. 

“For what purpose?”

“What’s the security over there?”

As the meeting wore on Anne fought the urge to become defensive. She repeatedly explained the value of using the Oscar for classes and tours. Everyone loved seeing it and she tied the object in with Meadows' papers which included correspondence with famous people, film scripts, and photos. The golden statuette served as a hook, a way to interest people in archives, and the universally recognizable symbol did the job extremely well.

After countless questions about security, Sandy and Stewart said she should reconsider using the Oscar for classes as they were concerned about theft. While they stopped short of stating explicitly not to use it, they strongly intimated the risk. Anne patiently tried to persuade them that the benefits of using the Oscar outweighed the risks. Besides, two locked doors stood between a thief and the gold statue. Even if a thief made it into the archives, he or she would need to use the locator guide which, to Anne, served as yet another obstacle, given it always took new graduate students weeks to learn to find collections with it.   

Anne walked back to Johnson Hall after the meeting and mumbled aloud with frustration, “They should be more concerned about water issues in the basement after a heavy rain than if somebody can get in to steal the Oscar.” She decided the benefits outweighed the risks, and, Anne reasoned, no one came right out and told her, “Don’t use the Oscar.”

The morning of the discovery, after finishing several more pieces of chocolate, Anne called Campus Security and then her supervisor Samuel Clemons, dean of the library. He arrived at Anne’s office ten minutes later. Sitting at the small meeting table, he pointed to her candy jar in the middle.

“May I have one?” he asked.

“Have as many as you need,” said Anne, also reaching for a piece. Dean Clemons polished off several chocolates before Officer Davis arrived.

The next hour passed in a blur for Anne. As multiple officers arrived, she took each down to the archives, showed them the Meadows collections area, and answered questions about when she last handled the Oscar.  

“I believe it was around two weeks ago when the Famous Thespians theater class came in at 6:00pm for their class.” Anne replied.

“Do you know for sure?” Officer Davis asked.

“I’ll double check and get the exact date for you,” Anne said. “What I do know,” she continued as she looked at the piece of paper given to her a few minutes earlier by Amy, “is that counting the weekend, it’s been three days between the last time one of us went into the archives and what we found this morning. ‘Course, the Oscar could have been taken before that and we’d only know if we went to get it.”

“We’ll pull the badge swipes from the security system to see exactly who’s been in and out over the last two weeks,” said Officer Davis. “What’s the value of the Oscar?”

“Conservatively half a million,” Anne replied.

Officer Davis whistled through his teeth. “I assume there’s an appraisal and I’d like a copy.”

“No appraisal,” Anne said. “But I have documentation of the online research I did to come up with that number.”

“No appraisal?” Officer Davis asked, raising his eyebrows.

“Nope. No one thought we needed one,” Anne said while rubbing her forehead several times.


That same Monday, Steven returned to his empty off-campus apartment at 10:00am. He had no more classes for the day and knew his two roommates would be gone until late afternoon. Opening the closet in his small bedroom, Steven reached down into a large pile of clean clothes on the floor. He found what he wanted on the bottom and gingerly pulled it out.

The Oscar glowed, or so it seemed to Steven as he turned it around in his hands. Steven felt slightly nervous, as he usually did when he handled it. He also felt happy and he smiled. The Oscar now belonged to him.


Anne went up to the third floor leaving the officers to look around the archives and talk to Dean Clemons. Cora followed her into the office, shut the door, and immediately burst into tears. Cora spoke but because of the crying Anne caught only a few discernable words: my badge. Giving Cora a tissue and offering her a piece of candy, Anne waited while Cora dried her eyes, stopped crying, and ate.

Minutes later when Cora seemed calmer, Anne asked, “Ok, now what?”

“My badge, I lost my badge about two weeks ago. You always say to clip it to our clothes and I didn’t because I don’t like to so I set it on the GA desk. I think it was the time the students came in from the Famous Thespians class. After I pulled the boxes from the basement, I put my badge on the desk,” said Cora.

Starting to speak faster she continued, “I forgot to pick it up when I left at 4:30 and I didn’t realize until I came to work two days later that I didn’t have my badge and I thought I’d dropped it on campus somewhere and I didn’t think anything of it and just went and got a new one.”

Cora began to cry again as she went on, “Now it’s all my fault someone took the Oscar and they’ll think it’s me but it’s not and I should have listened to you.”

Cora finished, sobbing loudly and reaching for more candy. Anne rubbed her forehead.


A day after the Famous Thespians class tour, Steven and four other students went together to the archives to work on a required assignment that entailed using archival collections. The only graduate assistant working that day brought up the boxes they requested and then took off her badge laying it on the main desk in the room. Steven stayed behind when the other students left after an hour. While the graduate assistant had her back turned working at a different table to gather up the boxes, Steven suddenly realized his opportunity. He stood up and quickly stepped the short distance to the desk, shoving the badge in his pocket. Several seconds later the graduate assistant turned and asked if he was done. Steven answered yes, retrieved his backpack from the nearby cubbies, thanked her, and left the archives as calmly as he could.

At 2:00 am the next morning Steven parked in one of Midwestern’s student’s lots and walked to Johnson Hall, becoming more nervous as he approached the building. Once at the main door, Steven glanced around and appeared to be alone. He looked up and around the building for a security camera and saw none. Taking a deep breath to quell his anxiety, Steven used the badge to enter and went down the stairs, badging first into the basement and then into the archives. He did not turn on any lights and his eyes quickly adjusted to the faint glow of the exit signs. Steven went over to the small desk by the door and with shaking hands picked up a clip-board. What had Anne called it during the tour, locator something? Looking through the thick document he could not figure out the graphs of numbers and letters and laid it back down on the desk

Steven walked three steps into the nearest open row of moveable compact shelving, looked to his right, and saw boxes marked as the Meadows Collection. He immediately recognized the long narrow box and confirmed his hunch by opening it. Heart racing, Steven put the lid back on and placed the box in his backpack, slinging it gently on his shoulder. He left the archives, went up the steps, and out of Johnson Hall. Fighting the urge to run, Steven walked across campus to his car and paused only once along the way to throw the pass badge into a campus garbage can. Steven drove to his apartment feeling calmer with every mile as no police followed him. Once in his room he immediately buried the Oscar in the pile of clean clothes on his closet floor.

Tuesday morning, the day after the theft discovery, Officer Davis came to Anne’s office. As he sat down at her table Anne offered him the last piece of chocolate in the jar. He declined and Anne took it. Officer Davis explained that Cora’s badge showed on Johnson Hall’s locked doors at 2:00 am two weeks earlier. Campus Security talked with Cora and she had a confirmed alibi staying that night at her boyfriend’s apartment. Officer Davis told Anne the five students from the Famous Thespians class were also interviewed. No one seemed suspicious and all had alibis. Officer Davis also explained the security camera normally outside Johnson Hall broke several months earlier, had been removed, and not yet replaced. Then Officer Davis began asking Anne questions.

“Who made the decision to install a dummy reading room camera?”

“Do you train graduate assistants in basic security?”

“Do graduate assistants leave researchers alone?”

“How often do you use the Oscar for tours and classes?”

Anne explained the dummy camera was there when she came. Several years ago she requested a real reading room security camera but never heard back. Yes, graduate assistants worked alone because they functioned as archives staff and she often had meetings outside the building. Yes, she trained them in basic security. At least a dozen times a semester she brought out the Oscar for tours and classes given the benefits of using it to talk about archival collections. Plus, people loved seeing an Oscar. As Officer Davis continued with questions, Anne intermittently rubbed her forehead and silently wished for more candy, knowing her desk drawer only contained empty bags.    


Steven felt very nervous when questioned by Campus Security. His roommates, clueless about his 2:00am foray, confirmed what Steven told Officer Davis: he was in bed the night the Oscar disappeared. After the Campus Security visit Steven felt proud of his accomplishment but as time went on, he started to wonder what he could do with the Oscar besides keep it in his closet. The risk seemed too great to show it to anyone.

A week after the discovery of the theft, Steven sat at a local coffee shop near campus reading the student newspaper The Midwesterner. He closely followed news of the crime in the campus, local, and national papers and on television. Steven read a front page story on Anne Anderson’s indefinite suspension. While university administration would not comment, The Midwesterner reporter found an anonymous source who divulged the reason: poor professional judgment regarding archival security, resulting in theft of the Oscar.    

At 6:30pm that same evening Steven drove to Midwestern, parked his car in student parking, and walked across campus to Johnson Hall. He felt calmer this time during the trek. Steven knew from experience that when night classes used the second floor classrooms the main door remained unlocked during the 6:00-8:00pm time period. Again, he looked upward and again, no security camera.    

Steven entered the building and climbed the three flights of stairs to the archives now closed since 5:00pm. Steven unzipped his backpack and removed the box with the Oscar, feeling sad he would no longer be able to hold it. He also brought out a typewritten note that read:

Please bring back Anne Anderson. It’s not her fault I stole the Oscar. I’m returning it so you will give her back her job.

Steven gently placed the box in front of the door and put the note on top. He sighed wistfully, then walked down the stairs and out of Johnson Hall with a story too risky to tell.   


© 2018 by Nancy Freeman

About the author: Nancy Freeman is the director at the Women and Leadership Archives at Loyola University Chicago. An archivist for nearly twenty years, Nancy will be semi-retired beginning in 2019. She came to archives as a second career and received her MA in history from Colorado State University-Fort Collins with a concentration in public history.

Nancy would like to thank her husband, Scott Walker, a writer and editor extraordinaire who provided invaluable assistance with this story.