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).