Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

NARA, SAA, and Anthony Clark

The issues being discussed presently about NARA's treatment of Anthony Clark and the role of SAA, its code of ethics, and its independent voice in the archival community are much more than about one case. It is about the issue of leadership in the U.S. archival community. It is about the problems of eroding leadership by NARA (especially in the last two decades) and the strange views of SAA leadership about its code of ethics (we need a code, but we will never refer to it). However, this case does suggest that agitators ought to be seen as advocates; while some view Mr. Clark as a pest, I am sure, his views about the role of NARA and his appeals to SAA suggest he may possess a stronger notion of the archival community's mission and societal role than even elected and appointed leaders in the field at NARA and SAA. I thought I would use the blog to share some of my own views about this and cite, when relevant, some of my own writings on this topic (and related ones). I do this in my blog so as to not irritate unnecessarily those on the A&A list or in other venues. You can choose to ignore this or to read it.

When I first entered the archival profession in the early 1970s, I read all I could find and I remember reading the book by H.G. Jones, The Records of a Nation, published in 1969 and addressing the need for an independent National Archives (rather than its positioning under the General Services Administration). Typical of everything that Jones wrote, it is an elegant and beautiful argument for why an independent archives was so critical both to its mission and to the archival and historical professions. Some years later I watched with interest as the movement to gain NARA's independence kicked into full gear (my history masters mentor Walter Rundell was a leader in this), but by then I wondered just what difference it really would make if the National Archives was independent. Would it have a more precise mission, would it carry it out with more authority, and so forth? Donald McCoy's 1978 book on the National Archives provided many hints that independence was not the real issue; while at one point I viewed his book as an exemplary piece of archival history -- "Donald R. McCoy's National Archives and American Archival History," Manuscripts 31 (Fall 1979): 302-08 -- I have had occasion to re-examine the book for other reasons related to understanding the National Archives and have seen it as identifying weak parts of the foundation of the archival community. Clarity of mission and stronger leadership seemed more important.

My time on SAA Council in the late 1980s, work on an NHPRC-funded project on electronic records starting in the late 1980s, and continuing work in archival circles, such as editor of the American Archivist, gave me a unique opportunity to observe both SAA and NARA and the relationship between the two. While we worked on the research project about electronic recordkeeping, we witnessed the PROFs case, NARA's strange role in it, and one of my doctoral students, David Wallace, wrote an important study (his dissertation) of that case. At my last SAA Council meeting in 1989 I witnessed leadership from NARA fumble about answering questions why it had sold marketing rights to Philip Morris for the use of the Bill of Rights, ultimately telling SAA that it did not care what SAA or the archival community thought about this (or any other) issue. When the 1992 House report on mismanagement at the National Archives appeared, I contacted SAA about the unethical activities of then AUS Don Wilson, but I was told that the ethics code was unenforceable and that in America people were assumed innocent until proved guilty (I pointed out that this while true did not deal with individuals confessing or when strong evidence materializes such as with the then startling report -- now not so startling).

I also participated in the early 1990s in a meeting of graduate archival educators at NARA to assist it in evaluating its internal training program, and the consensus was that NARA needed to open up this program and align itself with new trends and opportunities in the emergence of stronger education programs (later, it was reported that we had endorsed their program, hardly true, and the last time I have ever had an invitation to participate in anything with NARA). The one exception to this occurred a few years ago when I was a candidate for a faculty position at the University of Maryland and I was invited to a meeting with a high-ranking NARA official where I was told that they didn't want me there because I had been critical of the National Archives (true), the Maryland program was their education program (false), I neglected my masters students in favor of my doctoral students (strange, and just ask my doctoral students if they feel so favored), and that they opposed me because I was a collaborator with David Bearman who they disliked (I had not worked at that point with David for nearly a decade). Such sentiments were clearly residue from my involvement with David on the Pitt electronic records project and some of my writings about ERM that were critical of NARA, leading to some strident criticisms of me in the literature by NARA staff such as Tom Brown and the late Linda Henry -- but such debates in the professional literature I always view differently (if you dare to publish, you have to be ready to accept such responses -- and they always drive up one's citation counts anyway). I withdrew my application for unrelated reasons, but this was obviously a weird meeting (and one that makes me appreciate all the more the problems faced by Anthony Clark).

As time passed other issues related to the role of the National Archives continued to emerge. Although a considerable portion of my early career seems to have had me connected to some aspect of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the small funding arm of NARA, its role in diverting much of its funds to documentary editing projects in traditional approaches and formats seemed counter-intitutive. In the early 1990s a supposedly impartial study about the use of documentary editions was released by the NHPRC, but it mostly seemed to be a thinly veiled rationale or defense of these editions -- prompting me to write a critical review of the report, published as "Archivists and the Use of Archival Records: Or, A View from the World of Documentary Editing," Provenance 9 (1991 [1992]): 89-110. At one time in the late 1990s, the re-authorization of NHPRC seemed to distort even the balance of funds for editing and archiving projects, prompting me to write "Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, and Gates: Quarelling about the Preservation of the Documentary Heritage of the United States," First Monday 2 (August 1997). While NHPRC has played an important role over the years in many aspects of the archival community, from supporting the publication of basic manuals and various research projects, I also have come to see the annual battle about its small federal allocation to be increasingly out of proportion to the needs of the archival community for a national archival policy and national funding. Advocacy and lobbying for stronger support for the archival mission needs to move beyond this small group buried within NARA, but I digress.

Because NARA is the defacto physical and institutional representation or symbol for so many (the media, scholars such as historians, genealogists and other citizen groups, school groups) of the archival mission, it is important to watch, comment on, and lobby for change with or about NARA when it either wanders away from this mission or provides us opportunity for supporting it when the federal agency embarks in new and interesting directions. (Let me add here, that I write as both citizen/taxpayer wanting to see his interests represented and a long-time member of the archival profession). So, for example, when NARA announced its intentions to refurbish the display of the Declaration of Independence and other critical seminal documents, I thought this provided an opportunity for NARA to do some different things in representing new challenges (in this case digital documentation) to the archival mission, and I enjoyed writing about this in my "Declarations, Independence, and Text in the Information Age," First Monday 4 (June 1999). Likewise, when we witnessed the transition from the Clinton administration to the second Bush one, this prompted me to write an analysis of the role and activities of the presidential library system, published as "America's Pyramids: Presidents and Their Libraries," Government Information Quarterly 19, no. 1 (2002): 45-75 (mostly because I had become so appalled at the dominance of presidential library insiders in writing about these institutions and the complacency of the archival community about these institutions (that is, the complete lack of critical perspective about their strengths and weaknesses).

The second Bush administration, with its remarkable commitment to secrecy, has led me to watch even more closely the activities of the National Archives and how it would deal with such challenges. And I have found myself writing about a variety of issues about such matters, generally prompted by specific cases. The naming of a new Archivist of the United States in the midst of the Bush era caused me to reflect on the importance of this position -- "Why the Archivist of the United States is Important to Records Professionals and America," Records & Information Management Report 20 (October 2004): 1-14. Increasing scrutiny by journalists, scholars, and other commentators on matters of government accountability and secrecy has led me to write reviews of some of their observations, such as "Empty Temples: Challenges for Modern Government Archives and Records Management," Records & Information Management Report 22 (October 2006): 1-13 and “Secrecy, Archives, and the Archivist: A Review Essay (Sort Of),” American Archivist 72 (Spring/Summer 2009): 213-230 (obviously forthcoming). Sadly, some odd activities by NARA itself, such as its involvement in secret arrangements with some federal agencies to reclassify previously open records, also has led to some additional writings, such as "The National Archives Reclassification Scandal," Records & Information Management Report 22 (November 2006): 1-13. Some of these essays I have folded into some of my books, and others will appear in this way in the future. The point here is, in my opinion, that NARA has not performed particularly well.

My commentaries on NARA and related topics have been a very minor part of my writings about archival issues in the last two decades. Yet, I worry about the future of the profession because of archival leadership issues, a seeming neglect of ethics and accountability matters, and a sick feeling that most working archivists do not care about NARA (or even SAA for that matter). Personally, I feel that the most important future issues faced by the archival community won't be technology, but it will be accountability and ethical issues. And apparently, from time to time, SAA leadership seems to think this way as well. In 2005 SAA President Richard Pearce-Moses sent a letter to AUS Allen Weinstein expressing concern about the reclassification mess, starting the letter in this way: "Archivists share a passion and professional ethic for open access to government records. We believe that a citizen’s right to review public records is a hallmark of democratic government. This right allows citizens to hold their public leaders accountable and to protect their rights and privileges." Pearce-Moses outlined actions they wanted NARA to take, but the main point here is here we have an open reference to a sense of ethics.

I believe, given the evidence Anthony Clark has presented, that SAA, through its Ethics and Professional Conduct committee, should hear both sides -- Clark and NARA -- and issue a statement criticizing NARA for how it has treated Mr. Clark and restricted access to the records of the Office of Presidential Libraries (I say this because of the evidence Mr. Clark has presented). If "Archivists [really] share a passion and professional ethic for open access to government records" and they "believe that a citizen’s right to review public records is a hallmark of democratic government," then SAA can take no other action. The National Archives is in ruins, and I hope that the Obama Administration will name a dynamic and energetic individual to be the Archivist of the United States to restore it to what it once was and give it a hope for what it could be. SAA needs to step in and become an independent leader and a vigilant watchdog of NARA, not just a bystander expressing little opinion about NARA's troubles, poor leadership, and sometimes unethical activities.

I have served SAA in many capacities. I have published in the American Archivist from 1974 to this year, served on Council, been the AA editor, been editor of publications, and been on numerous committees and sessions. I believe that to be a strong profession we need a strong professional association, but it is getting harder for me to answer questions posed by my masters students about why they should be a member of this association. And every September when my dues notice comes, it gets a little harder for me to answer the same question.

I have lost many friends and colleagues through the years because of my stands on a number of issues, and this hurts me more than I generally let on. I am sad by the lack of support even today by many of my educator colleagues who won't take a position on such issues as SAA ethics code or the problems plaguing NARA's leadership, for reasons only known to them. I believe, strongly, that the future of the archival field depends on speaking up about such matters, not remaining silently on the sidelines and merely tending to our own gardens. I will be the first to admit if I am wrong about any of this, and I have made mistakes in the past because I am human, but I believe the silence of so many is a far greater wrong. Help me explain to my students why they should be SAA members and, for goodness sake, why they should heed the call to be archivists.

Some Books Incorporating Some of My Commentaries on Ethics and Accountability

Co-editor, with David Wallace, Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and Records in Modern Society (Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 2002).

Archives and Archivists in the Information Age (New York: Neal-Schuman, 2005).

Ethics, Accountability and Recordkeeping in a Dangerous World (London: Facet, 2006).


At 9:08 AM, Blogger Dharma said...

Thanks, Richard.

At 9:42 AM, Blogger Erin said...

Not only have I been following the terse, somewhat misguided conversation about this on the listserv, I was also at Mr. Clark's presentation.

I feel like if the archival profession wants to, for lack of a better cliche, be able to respect itself in the morning, it had better learn to hold its largest, most well-known body accountable for the image it presents to the public, researchers, and its own professional peers. Otherwise, as government secrecy (hopefully) fades, so will the institution that perpetuates the withholding of public information.

At 6:44 PM, Blogger Kate T. said...

Dear Richard,

Thank you for bringing Anthony Clark's case to a wider audience. I wrote about it last summer, when the story first broke, and noted that archivists needed to pay more attention to what happens at the National Archives. It wasn't a very successful call.

I just put up a post over on ArchivesNext ( that describes what I think NARA needs to do. I did not talk at all about what I think SAA needs to do. I am on familiar ground talking about the NARA situation and I felt someone needed to present a different point of view.

As for the role SAA should play . . . if you want to give your students some hope, tell them to go and read Terry's latest post at know, he's got a gift for titles. In fact, if you want to show your students an example of why they should have some hope and enthusiasm, tell them to look at Terry. Read his blog. To me, Terry is the future of SAA (he's blushing now). But it's not just Terry, there are lots of others out there who want to push the organization into a more active role. I think we will see a generational shift, but I don't know how long it will take to happen.

Your students (and all students, and not just students) should join SAA and find the people in it that are working for change--like Terry. There are reasons to have hope. And for some of us, you, Richard, are one of them. I am sorry to hear that you have lost some friends, but you have gained some fans. People who admire you for taking stands when so few are willing to do so.

I am capable of writing much more about the situation at NARA and the role of SAA, but that's what I have a blog for! But these are difficult issues to get people talking about. The more people like you (and Terry and me) agitate, the more likely we are to get people thinking and talking. It's difficult, but it's necessary.

Thank you!


At 10:04 PM, Blogger Richard J. Cox said...

Kate, I read your blog, and I disagree completely with your position. Essentially, it suggests that NARA is unaccountable for its actions, and I do not believe any federal agency is unaccountable. And I have no faith whatsoever that NARA will police itself or correct these problems; it has played this game for a long time, and the archival profession has allowed its leaders do that. There will be a new AUS, and I hope he or she is one who requests resignations and reassigns others to the equivalent of archival Siberia. If a few individuals confessed to their actions and resigned, then I would have some hope -- but I have none with NARA. I continue to hold out hope for SAA, that some of its elected leadership will push for it to investigate how Mr. Clark was treated. He has a lot of evidence, and we do not need NARA's cooperation in this. If SAA issues a statement requesting NARA to recant and calling for some resignations, based on the clear evidence of actions antithetical to even its vague ethics code, then I will have some hope for SAA and its professional community. If SAA does nothing, and the archival community sits by quietly, then I will still continue to speak out, but certainly not from within its organizational parameters. We will need to look for real leaders and strong leadership, but I hope I am wrong about this.

At 6:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard, for me as a a historian and a former archivist, what was striking in the presentation of Pitt was the lack of acknowledgement to the audience that there might be another side to this. Someone in the room needed to remind them of that, before or after Mr. Clark himself spoke. The introduction of Mr. Clark made a reference to something being rotten in the state of Denmark. This framed the story for the audience before they heard anything. That there is a good guy and a bad guy is the type of framing I'm used to in the political world, not in the historical. Unfortunately, I sensed little desire to get to the bottom of the story.

Perhaps I missed it, but I never heard anyone say, "this is one man's view, there's another side to this, so keep an open mind and recognize that there are things we may be misunderstanding or missing here."

The possibility of misinterpretation particularly struck me in the discussion of the FOIA exemptions. Someone who has worked to screen federal records to see what could be released would have discussed (b) (5), (b)(6) differently, although its understandable that a researcher -- an outsider -- might say what Mr. Clark did. It's not his field of expertise. Some of your students might end up working FOIA some day.

This presentation may have been well intended but in reality, did little to prepare students for how things work with archival access. A researcher does not have to apply the same balancing tests to disclosure decisions that archivists do. Your students need to know more about FOIA than this presentation suggested from outside the government.

Mr. Clark can present this any way he wishes. Apparently, his presentation was effective for you and from the laughter in the audience, I would guess for most listeners in the room. But where was the archivists' perspective, the understanding that disclosure means applying balancing tests and that listeners lacked knowledge of how NARA might be applying them?

The audience was left with the impression that the government plays games with FOIA and that everything surrounding NARA's actions is is in doubt or subject to condemnation. While there may be issues with how some of the FOIA screening has worked here -- I lack access to information on agreements in place, if any, on speed of handling the request versus customary procedures -- I see no basis for blanket condemnation. I do see some misunderstandings and some areas where NARA might want to review its procedures and processes internally.

I'm not in a position to discuss why NL's records were not in RG 64 except to say that there are issues with RG 64 of which outsiders are unaware. But even here, your students need to hear about the real world of records management, not just the ideal world. They need to know what they are getting into if they go into the RM profession. So context, corporate cultures and environmental issues matter here, as well. That needs to come from a neutral perspective, one aimed at preparing them to deal effectively with what they face. Perhaps a venue for agitators is not the place for that, at all.

Finally, you write "He has a lot of evidence, and we do not need NARA's cooperation in this." You may find that to be the case but I do not support an approach which ignores the fact that there is another side to the story. In the political world, bloggers could call for CBS to fire Dan Rather over the TANG records. Even there, an independent body tried to look at the issues.

Surely you're not saying that we're now in a position where even with archival issues, in a field which still has people in it who hold graduate degrees in history, it's ok to take action without hearing all the evidence? Or, if gathering such evidence is not possible, saying let's avoid a rush to judgment. History relies on multiple perspectives. It is dependent on evidence and balance.

By saying let's go with what we've got, you're dismissing what is unknown. No historian would say he or she need only read the memoirs of Presidens and their advisers, there's no need for what is in archival records. If a man or woman (the President or someone else) says it happened, hey, it did. No historian would approach this story this way. By by its nature history requires cross checking and the patient gathering of data. If data is unavailable, you avoid coming up with final conclusions but state only what is known. Like auditors, good historians state up front what they are unable to conclude if they lacked access to pertinent data. History falls apart if it depends on a rush to judgment.

Despite my particular experiences, I view NARA as a place outsiders should try to understand and help to do better. It is precisely because I revere its mission and have tried to carry it out as an employee that I am disappointed in the lack of balance and contextual sophistication that has come to surround this issue.

At 8:19 AM, Blogger Richard J. Cox said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:21 AM, Blogger Richard J. Cox said...

Maarja, you constantly remind the world that you are a historian, but I wonder about your own use of evidence and your own ability to see things in any kind of objective fashion. At least you listened to the lecture (while on the listserv you posted lengthy comments critiquing it before ever seeing it), but you still managed to avoid understanding the context for the lecture. You made a number of condescending comments here about what was going on at Pitt -- the students in the room are in the midst of taking a course on archival access, advocacy, and ethics and they have read, discussed, and absorbed a lot of stuff about these issues BEFORE hearing Mr. Clark. You represent part of what is wrong with our ability to deal with NARA -- you refuse to understand its weaknesses and the fact that it has developed a sick culture allowing it to do outrageous things (and Clark has presented solid evidence about this, but you won't even look at it); the weakness of the archival profession allows NARA to get away with this stuff. Your comments about analyzing evidence are funny to me, given that you cannot even look at the evidence Clark has presented, but must always twist and turn matters to focus on your own experience, the Nixon tapes, and other unrelated matters. On the A&A listserv your lengthy commentaries wandering off into weird stuff stifles discussion and diverts attention from the real issues. You have done it here with your comment on my blog, just as I thought you would. Your accusations about what was going on with this lecture are just another smokescreen for the fact that you cannot handle the truth about the problems at NARA. Its day of reckoning is coming, I hope, when the new AUS is confirmed; if not, then we will need to look elsewhere to build a strong archival community and mission, because we cannot allow NARA to set the tone for what we need to do. Anthony Clark has been mistreated and some truly odd actions have been taken that violate any sense of archival ethics. You can ignore this; I won't.

At 8:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard, if you feel a tone of hostility serves you well, I cannot help you avoid it. The lecture at Pitt was made available to the public. What your students may or may not have learned was not. We're just supposed to accept that they know something without knowing what it was. You saying "trust us" which is exactly what you are saying people should not do with NARA.

I wish you would focus less on how someone writes, or the length of their comments, and more on discourse. There is nothing to be afraid of in differing viewpoints, perspectives or even styles of communication. Your students will enter the workforce one day and be judged on how they work with people who may be very different from them. Why not use this as an illustration of how that sort of thing can play out in an environment where people even are encouraged to study Myers-Briggs, rather than saying my style is wrong or unacceptable?

As to the Nixon issues, I didn't even mention in my comments here that I once worked with them at NARA. I censored myself because I remember you once chided me on the List for mentioning that more often than you liked. So I am aware of what the tolerance is for my mentioning that.

I'm sorry to see you solicit comments here on your blog on the List but not consider what I said in full. I tried to join the conversation but perhaps I'll just have to leave you to to discuss this with others, if that is more comfortable. That I don't have any hostility for you is shown by the fact that I tried to join the conversation.

At 5:58 PM, Blogger Richard J. Cox said...

None of this is about you, it is about NARA and its treatment of Anthony Clark. Focus on that. And, by the way, it is difficult to engage in a discourse with someone who constantly turns the conversation in different directions when challenged, questioned, or rebutted. This is not about you. It is about this case. You felt compelled to post many messages about the Clark lecture without having heard it, and you still will not address the specifics of what he has presented. I wish none of this was the case with NARA leadership, but there is a lot of evidence suggesting otherwise. Hopefully, the SAA CEPC will look at the specifics and the evidence. BTW, my comment about not hearing NARA was in reaction to your comments about NARA not being able to disclose its activities regarding Clark; my comment was intended to make this assertion look silly, which it is. NARA is a federal agency and it can be held accountable by any number of parties, and it hopefully will be. It has no special protection. It is an agency supported by the citizenry and that once upon a time actually seemed to think it had a responsibility to the citizenry (and last time I checked the citizenry included Clark, me, and you). Speak up NARA, come clean, or present evidence that it is not unnecessarily restricting important records related to the presidential library system.

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The audience was left with the impression that the government plays games with the FOIA . . ." -- Maarja Krusten.

I understand and respect Maarja's sentiments for wanting differing points of view represented, but I think the record is clear that the Bush-Cheney years not only witnessed an attempt to shroud the government in secrecy, but also an assault on the nation's key open records laws. Attorney General John Ashcroft's October 2001 FOIA directive encouraged (if not mandated) all federal departments and agencies to restrict disclosure whenever possible. This directive also covered NARA. It may well be that NARA is still operating under the Ashcroft directive and has yet to understand that it is now under a new administration that has issued a new FOIA decree and is stressing transparency.

At 7:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I live and work in a real (NARA) world, so I'll go ahead and take a chance and write something anonymously.

There are forums that SAA can raise issues concerning NARA. For instance, there will be NARA budget hearings. There will be (I hope) opportunity to raise issues during the confirmation hearings for the new archivist.

And what are the issues that ought to be raised- well certainly the Anthony Clark case, and FOIA responses in general.

In addition we could ask that a bit more attention be paid to ERA. How did such a huge contract put so much into the pockets of a former aerospace company and really accomplished relatively little? Why did the former NARA CIO get a position with Lockheed-Martin?

NARA managerial failure offers another opportunity for discussion. How did NARA develop such a huge backlog?

Unfortunately, NARA's self policing operations are fairly corrupt. For instance, how is it that the Presidential Library official responsible for permiting Sandy Berger to give new meaning to "gold toe" gets promoted, while the NARA's Union President is forced to resign because he traveled to Cuba, while another NARA official is paid to junket to China?

Believe me, real NARA employees are very upset with what is going on. The Anthony Clark issue has been raised internally by the Assembly, and if ERA has a smidgeon of operation capability, it's thanks to the hard working NARA employees who made the damn thing work a little.

One wonders how NARA management has crumbled so completely. When one looks back at the beginning of the National Archives, clearly there were giants in the earth in those days, in comparison to the small minds we have today.

At 11:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Richard,

Just wanted to let you know that I am adjusting my syllabus in my current archives class to bring this case to my student's attention. It is indeed important that we discuss accountability, ethics and advocacy.

Deborah Torres
MLIS Program
College of St. Catherine (St. Paul, MN)

At 7:51 AM, Blogger Richard J. Cox said...

Deborah, good to hear about what you are doing. To the NARA insider, thanks. This is why Clark makes a distinction between NARA officials and the archivists; he knows there are many dedicated, competent professionals working there.


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