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.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

More About SAA, NARA, and Anthony Clark

What follows is my second round of exchanges with SAA about the Anthony Clark, NARA, and the Code of Ethics. I believe what we are seeing here is an unfortunate lapse in SAA leadership. We may be at a crossroads concerning the viability of SAA as a serious professional association, if it abandons its responsibility to speak out about problems at NARA or if it continues to neglect any serious commitment to archival ethics.

Here is My Second Open Letter to Frank Boles and SAA Leadership

Several weeks ago, February 14th to be exact, I wrote to the two of you making my concerns known about issues related to researcher Anthony Clark’s treatment by the National Archives in seeking to gain access to the records of the Office of Presidential Libraries. Specifically, I cited the SAA Code of Ethics, nothing that it “requires SAA leadership to investigate claims into the unprofessional and blatantly unethical behavior of NARA and its leadership.”

In a round of emails between Frank Boles and Rand Jimerson, the matter seemed to have been referred to the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (although some subsequent comments reported on the Archives and Archivists List suggests this may not have happened and would be considered at the SAA Council meeting held last weekend). While I found this confusing, I have waited to see what SAA would do at its Council meeting about this very important case.

In today’s “In the Loop,” sent out to all SAA members, there is a brief report of the “highlights” of the SAA Council meeting, but there is no reference to the Clark case. With this message, I am requesting as an SAA member a brief report about what, if any, action has been taken. I am writing this as a open letter to you and the professional community, sending it to you directly and also posting to the A&A list. I will report on any response I receive.

I would appreciate if I could have a timely response about Council’s deliberations and actions.

Thank you.

Here is Frank Boles’ Response to My Second Open Letter


Prior to the convening of the SAA Council meeting on February 26 in Washington, I spoke with Anthony Clark by phone to review the history of his contact with NARA and SAA and to gain a better understanding of his concerns. On February 25 I met with Acting Archivist of the United States Adrienne Thomas and two of her staff members to discuss several topics, including the issue of Mr. Clark’s access to records of the Office of Presidential Libraries. During the course of the Council meeting, I reported to the full Council about my conversations with Mr. Clark and Ms. Thomas; the Council did not take up a discussion of the issue. On March 4 I again contacted Mr. Clark by email.

During my conversation with Ms. Thomas it was clear to me that she is aware of the background and many details associated with Mr. Clark’s requests and claims. She assured me that she and her staff intend to work quickly – and directly with Mr. Clark – to resolve the matter. People of good will may disagree about whether NARA is acting in good faith and with reasonable speed; however, given new leadership I believe NARA should be given a continued opportunity to meet Mr. Clark’s requests and allowed a reasonable period of time for a mutually satisfactory agreement to be reached.

Regarding the SAA Code of Ethics:

The SAA Council, in February 2005, adopted the current Code of Ethics ( Prior to the adoption of this code, the Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct (CEPC) was charged to draft a revision of the code and to seek member opinion about the draft, which was done via an article in the July/August 2004 issue ofArchival Outlook and an open forum at the 2004 Annual Meeting in Boston. As the July/August 2004 article states: “On advice of legal counsel, this draft revision eliminates commentary on each principle, as well as guidelines and procedures for interpretation of the code and mediation of disputes….. The proposed code is intended to be aspirational.” Earlier, in January 2003, the Council voted to “revoke SAA’s code of ethics enforcement procedures.” The current Code does not require SAA leaders to investigate claims of unethical behavior.

Unfortunately there is an inconsistency between the Code and the guidelines under which the CEPC operates – an artifact, I believe, of our failure to review the Council Handbook carefully and update it in light of adoption of the new Code. The guidelines for the CEPC allow it to respond to ethical complaints if directed to do so by the president. Should the president invoke this clause, however, she or he would be in violation of at least two Council actions. I will ask Council to rectify this administrative error.

Currently the CEPC is discussing revising the Code to reflect current scholarship and professional discourse regarding archival ethics and the profession’s goals and identity. In its recent annual report to the Council, the CEPC indicated that it “plans to engage in further review of the SAA Code of Ethics to make recommendations to the Council and to the SAA membership regarding revising the Code,” with some preliminary recommendations to be made by the date of the 2009 Annual Meeting in Austin. Although several SAA members have suggested over the years that the Code be revisited with an eye to creating something that could be used in resolving ethical disputes, as I understand it, the CEPC currently does not recommend such changes, which would entail significant administrative and legal obligations, expenses, and liabilities.

As always, I appreciate your willingness to raise issues that are of concern to you.

Here is My Response to Frank Boles

I am saddened by President Boles's response, for several reasons.

First, there is no "new" NARA leadership. There is an acting Archivist of the United States, pending the nomination and approval of a new AUS. All the individuals in leadership, several named by Anthony Clark in his presentation, have been there many years an are still there -- and as I have written elsewhere, the problems with NARA were present before he asked for access to the records of the Office of Presidential Libraries.

Second, I am amazed by the candid response that SAA Council did not discuss the issue at its latest meeting. The reasons seem to be based on procedural issues related to inconsistencies about how or whether the president can refer matters to the Committee on Ethics and Professional Conduct. I guess life in SAA Council meetings have changed since I was on it. Did Council members review the Clark lecture? Was anyone concerned about the broader issues represented about NARA culture and leadership? Did anyone on Council want to talk with Anthony Clark and evaluate the evidence presented by him extending far beyond his own issues of access to records? As Bruce Montgomery nicely stated, there is a "larger issue" at work here and that "SAA's mission should include making inquiries (or investigating), joining lawsuits, and otherwise taking action in the public interest when larger principles of freedom of information and the public's right to know are involved."

Third, now I realize the mistake I made in invoking the Code of Ethics in the Clark case. I invoked the code because I believe that ethical issues represent perhaps the most important professional matters we will be involved with in the future. I also invoked the code because my responsibility as an educator is to prepare future archivists to work in an increasingly complex world, and this involves teaching about ethics and related matters. However, by doing this I enabled Council to avoid the Clark case and the broader issues reflected by NARA's actions in dealing with him and in other concerns related to it's mission. I am naive. I did not consider that Council would avoid the NARA issues by acknowledging problems with its internal procedures and logistics. I did not realize that an "administrative error" would lead to Council not even discussing what are obvious serious issues (or, if you like, charges that there are serious issues) at NARA. Honestly, I am shocked by this.

I won't address the matter of whether Mr. Clark is now being treated fairly by NARA or how he feels about his discussion with Frank Boles and SAA's actions (really, lack of activity); he is in the best position to discuss this if he wants. What I now must mull over is whether SAA is the best place to discuss and seek to resolve serious professional issues. Fortunately, I have a number of months before my dues notice arrives, and this gives me the opportunity to see what happens both with the appointment of a new AUS and how NARA responds to Anthony Clark's FOIA and other requests, as well as whether SAA realizes that it cannot just mouth empty rhetoric about ethical matters and it attempts to reaffirm the importance of professional ethics (or, more practically, whether SAA understands that it is long overdue in separating itself from NARA so it can honestly speak up about what the national archives needs to be, whether it uses the word "ethical" or not). In the past, I reflected on this and still written the check; I am not so sure I will do this when faced with the moment again at the end of the summer.

I have noticed that a lot of SAA energy has been devoted to telling us about the large membership it now has. While I know that it faces tough economic decisions ahead, as every organization does these days, I assume this membership desires SAA to be a leader and that people are not just members to get discounts on meeting registrations and publications, receive a personal copy of the American Archivist or the newsletter, or other such benefits. I see a failure here to provide leadership, and I accept the fact, given my own long involvement with SAA, that this is my failure as well; the victim here, the person who should be most concerned, is a citizen like Anthony Clark. It is with people like him that all our high ideals of preserving the documentary record, ensuring government transparency and accountability, and enabling citizens to have access to essential archival sources in order to understand their past will be tested and found working or not working. Whatever the reason, we have failed him, at least for the moment.