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, July 03, 2008

Closest to Home: Local Government Archives

The report by the Council of State Archivists (CoSA), “Closest to Home”: Archival Programs for Local Government Records, issued in January 2008 and available at, is an important benchmark assessment of local government archives. It is also a sad commentary on the failures of the American archival community.

Closest to Home nicely enumerates all the challenges represented in managing local government archives, including issues of standards, lack of attention by local governments, weak federal government role, problems with professional staffing, poor advocacy, under-use by any group except perhaps genealogists, inadequate funding, and new information technology concerns. If these problems sound familiar they should; they are nearly identical to reports issued by the American Association of State and Local History, the National Association of Government Archives and Records Managers, and some state archives two and three decades ago. Armed with a plan of action, a case statement for advocacy, the production of a “toolkit” for educating policymakers and the public, detailed issue reports on funding, advocacy, training, and new technologies by leading experts, and background materials, it is still impossible to escape the conclusion that it seems that no progress has been made in local government archives for a very long time. Reading the draft brochure, Local Government Archives and You: Your Heritage, Your Rights, Your Community, was like turning back the clock and reading statements about the importance of local archives produced by the New York State Archives in 1983 and 1988, no surprise given the important role of Bruce Dearstyne in both the earlier and more recent projects.

Even the report’s recommendations do not seem very new or innovative. Developing evaluative criteria, urging state archives to assume stronger leadership, getting professional associations signed on, pushing for a greater role by the federal government, increasing funding, strengthening advocacy, providing new training, instituting new initiatives for electronic records and information technologies, and so forth, have all been stated in the 1980s and 1990s. The question looming, then, is what happened over the past generation that local government archives seem to have been so neglected. The comment that FEMA is providing $2.6 million for an Intergovernmental Preparedness for Essential Records (IPER) project may indicate a breakthrough, except for the fact that there has been funding in the past and bright ideas as well; the funding for this particular project was provided by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a federal funding agency with a bright past but a cloudy future.

So, in reading this report, I looked for two elements. First, what does it suggest about why so little success has been made in recent decades with local government archives? Second, what does the report suggest in the way of action that is a departure or breakthrough from previous national programs to improve the management of these records? Overall, the report really does not provide reasons why so little success has generated from past efforts that have enumerated similar, often nearly identical, recommendations. Nor does the report really give much hope for future breakthroughs. Again, this is a very nice assessment, and it provides a lot to contemplate, but it is hard not to be cynical about future prospects given past failures.

There are mysterious aspects, at least to me, to this report. For example, the first challenge listed is the “absence of widely accepted standards as to what constitutes ‘adequate’ or ‘sufficient’ care and management of local government archival records” (p. 7). I really do not understand this. After all, there are numerous earlier efforts to define precisely such standards and benchmarks in textbooks and other reports. However, we don’t need to restrict ourselves to the literature on local government archives, but we can examine lots of other texts on archives generally. This seems more like an excuse than a real issue. What might be debatable is that the existence of such standards will lead to practical actions. Perhaps what this suggests about the experiences of the past few decades is that we have not learned that we need to build from real, practical successes rather just platitudes and general statements. Will standards be used in any voluntary way, even if they exist?

Here is another example suggesting that we need to view the nature of local government archives (and this report about them) in their broader societal, historical, and professional contexts. One of the report’s challenges is described in this way: “There is no national professional association devoted exclusively – or even primarily – to local government archival records” (p. 8). Later in the report there are lists of various professional and national associations, with statements such as “engaging these types of associations – and their state counterparts – holds vast, largely unexplored and untapped potential for getting the word out and engaging advocates and supporters well beyond the archives/records community” (p. 19). I don’t agree with word choices such as “unexplored” and “untapped”; I entered the profession in the early 1970s and since the late 1970s all I ever seemed to hear of or to be involved in concerned trying to get such associations, on both the state and national levels, engaged with the problems of local government archives. This makes it sound that one relatively straightforward task is to establish or re-establish such an association. However, there has been a long tradition of attention on local government archives in the Society of American Archivists, at least by its hospitality to host conference sessions and publish studies in its journal (I have presented and published on this topic). Moreover, in the mid-1980s, the National Association of State Government Archivists and Records Managers (NASARA) became NAGARA precisely in order to provide a focus on local government archives and records issues. Why, then, do we lack a professional association with some focus in this area?

To be more cynical, some of the recommendations in the report seem to be more wishful thinking than realistic objectives. For example, recommendation four calls for an expanded federal government responsibility and role for local government records. The rationale for this is quite logical – “many of the programs administered by local governments are mandated by of funded by the federal government, or both” (p. 22). Of course, the logic has always been there. It was there thirty years ago when NHPRC funded a lot of “model” local government records projects, when the 1983 report on statewide historical records planning was issued, and when NAGARA a few years later prepared a plan for millions of federal dollars to be poured into state and local government archives and records management programs. Such support never happened; what has changed to make us think this is a realistic objective?

Many of the recommendations for action will require significant national coordination and a lot of money, but more importantly to achieve these objectives will require that they do not become the activities of special projects and external funds but become regularly supported activities of at least the state archives. This is probably always where the weak link in the chain has been. The state archives have limited resources or are unwilling to reallocate resources in new strategic ways. There have been exceptions to this, of course, as the New York State Archives demonstrated amply in the 1980s and 1990s. However, time and time again, such noteworthy objectives as dealing with local government archives and records issues have simply not gained firm foundations because there were always other priorities or because there were uncertainties about staff expertise and other similar issues. Or, to put it more bluntly, is this really a national problem or a local or regional one? I remember twenty years ago the emphasis on creating model government archives and records management programs that could be used as exemplars for others to emulate. There were a few, but I suspect it may be easier and more beneficial to stress the creation of these programs, than to try to solve all the problems of local government archives across the United States.

There is a lot of good, commonsense advice offered in the report. Its authors address education in a solid fashion. Noting that respondents to their survey “indicated a preference for in-person, hands-on training and individual courses,” they indicate that there is a better way, that trying to meet this demand is “simply too labor, time, and resource intensive to deliver the educational content that needs to be delivered” (p. 37). The report suggests online education approaches, mentions a few examples, but fails to grapple with the fact that graduate archival education programs are moving to distance education approaches and that many have existing courses which could be adapted for local government archives issues and needs and are willing to work with alternative kinds of course offerings to meet practical needs in various aspects of archival work. Yet, the more important practical observation may rest with this statement concerning the effort to talk with experts, gather data, and develop recommendations: “Often working in relative isolation, they found that the Project provided an informal forum for them to get together, share ideas, and show pride in their accomplishments. In effect, the Project has served to begin defining and coalescing a community of interested, concerned professionals who are generous in sharing what they know and what they have learned. There is a need to keep that community together and growing and to sustain the interest and momentum that the Project has helped generate” (p. 44). This may sound a bit too self-congratulatory, but our bigger worry is that this is also usually an observation of other, earlier projects extending back into the 1970s. Honestly, the archives field is scattered with many impressive projects with strong starts that withered and died due to declining interest, other priorities, lack of funding, poor leadership, and lack of creativity and imagination.

Finally, I really wonder whether local government archives are unique in their problems, needs, challenges, and values. I question whether the rich literature, of both basic practice and, more recently, developing research case studies doesn’t really illuminate why archival initiatives in local government have such a spotty record. In fact, I think what is missing from this CoSA effort is a focus on research that builds on earlier successes and failures, providing data that will inform better future efforts. There have been lots of innovative efforts, some model building and experimentation, and other interesting approaches to local government archives that have never been thoroughly analyzed and documented. Why not put some effort into this in this project? We can push all the other advocacy efforts while we do this, but it also would be useful if we had a better understanding of how such earlier advocacy efforts succeeded or failed (think of the interesting films prepared and aired on television about brittle paper and digital records – does anyone really know what positive results these brought about?).

In fairness to the various advisors, authors, and consultants involved in this project, it must be stated that they understand something about the legacy of efforts concerning the care and management of local government archives. Geog Huth, in his report on sustainable funding issues, writes, “Action is the keyword. Over the last several decades, archivists have reviewed the state of local government archives and found it lacking. Year after year, state by state, in most local governments in the country, the state of local government archives is dire, and the situation is usually improving only slowly, if at all. Merely understanding the problem has not helped archivists solve the problem. Experimenting with solutions is the only way.” Huth notes that there is no guarantee about any of this, but he argues that “if interested parties in the archives profession band together to push through change, some improvement is assured” (p. 4). The problem is that such confidence was there in the past, and the results were meager at best. Is there anything in this report and the continuing project that will offer better and more positive change? I don’t see it at this point.

I am grateful, however, to have the report to use in my teaching and for it stimulating my own thinking about local government archives and records management, a place where I worked thirty years ago and tried to improve in my own small way.