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.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Different Perspectives on Presidential Libraries (and More Commentary on the Anthony Clark situation)

Susan Jacoby, Alger Hiss and the Battle for History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

James Traub, “The Academic Freedom Agenda,” New York Times Magazine, March 15, 2009, pp. 40-43.

Leonard Benardo and Jennifer Weiss, Citizen-in-Chief: The Second Lives of the American Presidents (New York: William Morrow, 2009).


Anthony Clark’s recent travails in getting access to the records of the Office of Presidential Libraries at the National Archives is only evidence of one aspect of this system, partly archival in nature and purpose, that ought to trouble archivists and others interested in the archival mission in a democratic society. Anyone who has paid attention to the presidential libraries and the issues related to their history, performance, mission, and controversies ought to acknowledge that this is a highly flawed system and one that is often in conflict with what archivists usually assume to be their role in American society. Indeed, three recent peeks into these institutions reveal continuing, troubling issues that represent the historical and political context for the kinds of problems Clark has encountered.

Perspective One

Susan Jacoby’s slim, elegant study about the Alger Hiss case offers insights about the current debates about the nature and role of presidential libraries. Jacoby traces the changing attitudes about the case and Hiss’ innocence or guilt about his conviction for spying for the Soviet Union. Acknowledging early on that Hiss looks more guilty because of additional government files declassified, Jacoby does not attempt to draw a conclusion about the merits of the case against Hiss but instead strives to show how the case has been a weathervane for the shifting fortunes of right and left political viewpoints. As she writes, “The contradictory historical scripts about the Hiss case reveal much more about conflicting visions of what America ought to be than about what American Communism actually was – or about who Alger Hiss was” (p. 29).

What does the book have to do with presidential records? For one thing, it places former Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein and his book on Hiss (Perjury, published in 1978) in its context. Weinstein used effectively FOIA to gain access to a greater quantity of documentation about the case, perhaps explaining why he has tried to assist Anthony Clark in his own FOIA efforts to get access to the OPL records. Jacoby describes Weinstein’s interviewing and working with Hiss and his assessments of what the evidence suggested about the issue of whether Hiss had been a Soviet spy, Weinstein’s conclusion that the evidence did not absolve him of guilt. Subsequent opening of Soviet records after the fall of the Soviet Union seem not to have countered the conclusions offered by Weinstein in his earlier book.

Indeed, Jacoby returns, in her conclusion, to the issue of records and the evidence they offer in resolving the split viewpoints about Hiss. She does not see how any additional evidence could resolve the controversy between right and left since the Hiss case has become a “metaphor for the fundamental dispute about the essence of patriotism that has created a wall of separation between many conservatives and many liberals” (p. 218). Jacoby sees the case as a “powerful argument in favor of maximum, not minimum, civil libertarian safeguards in times of real as well as perceived danger” (p. 221). It is why the problems revealed about the activities of both the SAA and NARA in regards to Anthony Clark’s efforts to examine the OPL records are, in my view, so dangerous to the health of the archival mission, a mission that must include the importance of records for holding government officials accountable to the public.

Perspective Two

Writer James Traub’s recent description of the efforts underway to bring to Southern Methodist University the George W. Bush Presidential Library also ought to give pause to the purpose and viability of these institutions. Traub focuses on the Freedom Institute, the “policy center to be housed alongside his presidential library and museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University” and now searching for an executive director (p. 40). Traub explores the controversy about the Bush library at SMU, and the manner in which he characterizes the substance of the debate ought to give us (the public and the archival community) pause about why we should continue to support such facilities: “But George Bush is not everyone’s guy on the S.M.U. campus. Indeed, the prospect of being identified in perpetuity with the Freedom Agenda freezes the blood of some of the university’s leading academics. Everything about the planned institute reminds them of what they detested about the Bush administration. It will proselytize rather than explore: a letter sent to universities bidding for the Bush center stipulated that the institute would, among other things, ‘further the domestic and international goals of the Bush administration.’ And it will hold itself apart from S.M.U.’s own world of academic inquiry, reporting to the Bush Foundation itself rather than to the university president or provost, as academic institutes — even presidential ones — normally do” (p. 42). Is this political agenda really the container we want for preserving and administering archival records?

Traub admits that it might take time for the Bush library to develop into an institution where research and scholarship of the variety normally desired at a university are both welcome and evident. However, he doesn’t hide how long this might take: “Even [R. Gerald] Turner, S.M.U.’s president, is hedging his bets. He expects there to be an ‘adjustment period’ during which the institute may feel a little bit like George Bush’s wonderful place but that over time, ‘Bush’s views will become irrelevant.’ That may be; the Hoover Institution eventually outgrew its namesake. But since the process took half a century, and involved some very ugly battles with Stanford, that may not be the most encouraging precedent” (p. 43). That suggests what is well documented, then, about presidential libraries, namely that there are so many other political and other agendas that the archival mission is threatened or compromised. Ought archivists to be surprised that the National Archives resists Anthony Clark’s requests to have access to the OPL records? Isn’t it likely that a lot of the ugliness of these other purposes will be revealed and any role by NARA to have a legitimate stake in preserving such records for purposes such as understanding our political processes, holding government accountable in a democratic system, and supporting reputable scholarship and other research dashed on the rocks of at least the recent administration’s objectives to oppose such objectives?

Perspective Three

The Benardo and Weiss book is a clever and interesting examination of the “second lives” (their post-presidency careers) of our chief executives. They look at how these individuals earn a living, the political careers and activities they engage in after their time in the Oval Office, new outlets for public service that they discover or pursue, and the rehabilitation agendas that some pursue with great vigor. One of the activities of the ex-presidents they examine (how could they not?) is their presidential libraries.

These authors provide the background on the library system – how it developed, arguments for and against it, the costs associated with it, controversies such as influence peddling in order to raise funds to design and build the expensive facilities, and how the system has been transformed. Benardo and Weiss pull no punches. Right at the outset they present what is the real problem with the library system: “In a country bereft of emperors, monarchs, or pharaohs, America’s most powerful elected officials have embraced libraries as their personal shrines” (p. 72). Woe to those that question this. Indeed, the authors return to this topic in their general conclusion when they see as a common theme the prevailing interests of these former presidents to be that of controlling their legacy. While many scholars, including some archivists, have pointed that the formation and preservation of archives has often been tied up with issues of power and control, it is not the public good objective we strive for in most articulations of the archival mission. The manner in which Benardo and Weiss characterize the nature of these archives cheapens the better objectives that these libraries could engage with and makes many archivists and their primary professional association, the latter seemingly asleep while the more dangerous issues with these institutions pile up and the former quiet and focused on their own institutional challenges, look more like court jesters.


There are, of course, good people who hold different opinions about the presidential libraries. There have been good people who have tried to steer these archives and museums in the right direction. However, I believe that what we are seeing with the case of Anthony Clark ought to demonstrate that this system is not the best way for us to preserve the records of the ex-presidents and their administrations; it creates a rationale for protecting not documenting former presidents, exacerbated by the poor work of the National Archives and the uneven handling by the SAA when it needs to function more as a professional and citizen watchdog of NARA. What Clark has brought to the table is an outsider’s perspective armed with substantial evidence of problems with what we used to see as our “ministry of documents” (borrowing from Donald McCoy’s thirty-year old history of the National Archives). Anyone trying to write NARA’s history since 1968, the cut-off year of McCoy’s history, it seems, could be blocked by the archivists themselves (how ironic), perhaps motivated by protecting their own legacy. We ignore this at the peril of destroying our professional ideals. I wonder if the damage may not already be too great.

At the moment, I am not sure where to go with SAA or NARA, partly because Anthony Clark is still laying out one important part of the evidence regarding his treatment. What I do know, is that in the case of the Society, is that the membership rightly expects its leadership to be accountable to it (and there are ways to hold it accountable IF individual members opt to band together and speak up, something it has not done and is not doing). We certainly are entitled to more than weak explanations revolving around administrative procedures, comments about a vague ethics code, and lame reassurances that NARA’s leadership is new and ought to be given time to resolve its internal problems. With regards to NARA, we have many more options available to us as U.S. citizens to voice our concerns. This is something to be discussed in the future.