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, April 25, 2009

Two Different Letters on Presidential Libraries

The call by the acting Archivist of the United States on March 24th for alternative models for presidential libraries, to be delivered in just a few weeks, generated two very different responses from professional associations. I believe these two different responses reflect something very troubling about how the archival community responds to matters concerning the National Archives and its administration of presidential records.

Frank Boles, writing for the Society of American Archivists, while providing a list of issues needing to be studied, essentially underscores the success of the presidential libraries and museums. Acknowledging that there are some disagreements about how effective these institutions have been, Boles calls for more data in order to have a “richer conversation.” He wants more information from what researchers think about these institutions, how any reorganization would affect researcher access, what are the costs involved (both from government and non-government sources) in administering the libraries and their museums, and is digitization of the materials held by the libraries a “cost-effective” option? Boles also asks a more important question, and that is whether the administration of presidential museums is really consistent with the mandate of the National Archives?

On its surface, this letter from SAA seems non-controversial, calling for a perfectly reasonable set of inquiries. It ignores, however, that there is a lot of information already out there (in the professional and scholarly literature) about these issues that many commentators have drawn upon. More importantly, this letter ignores two other important matters – why the National Archives as a matter of routine has not produced and posted such data (especially since it has routinely declared over the years the presidential libraries to be so successful) and why it asked for input on other options in such a brief period of time (not allowing for any real informed options to be put on the table)? Frank Boles’ call for the gathering of evidence about the libraries is, of course, one reflection of the inability to really offer useful suggestions.

There is another letter sent in response to this request from the acting Archivist. It is signed by sixteen organizations, ones that the SAA ought to working with in matters of government information and records policy. In this letter the organizations note their commitment to government “transparency and accountability” and complain that 21 days is not enough time to set forth other models for presidential libraries. These organizations raise specific points with concerns about processing these records removed from the FOIA framework: “NARA has a responsibility under both the letter and the spirit of all laws governing public access to presidential records to avoid any actions that limit or delay access to important records. Instead of undermining the FOIA process, NARA could significantly improve its FOIA process by adopting practices common at many agencies, such as appointing FOIA public liaisons, improving management and tracking of FOIA requests, and increasing its affirmative and proactive electronic posting of released records.” Their letter also worries that NARA has not considered “recommendations made by the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB) regarding expediting the declassification of presidential records.” Most importantly, the organizations sending this letter ask NARA to extend the time necessary to present alternative approaches to presidential records: “While we are aware NARA has a responsibility to report to Congress on these issues by mid-July, we note that NARA did not produce a request for information from the public until March 24th, and did not post the request on its website for almost a full week afterwards, with a deadline for comments less than 3 weeks thereafter. We believe this is not a sufficient amount of time for all stakeholders to engage in thoughtful discussions on these issues. This report presents NARA with an opportunity to explore dramatic changes in the handling of presidential documents that will improve public access and reduce costs. These options must be discussed with the broader community of stakeholders.”

There are a few issues that concern me with SAA’s response. SAA raised no questions about the shortness of time given for providing recommendations about presidential records; it simply complied. SAA lost an opportunity to join in with a community of important professional associations and governmental watchdog groups, ones I would assume with which they share many common concerns; perhaps SAA was not asked to be part of this, but if that is the case, we have even more reason to be concerned about SAA’s ability to advocate for the good of the archival community.

The organizations sending the other letter were:
American Association of Law Libraries
American Library Association
Association of Research Libraries
California First Amendment Coalition
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW)
Citizens for Sunshine
Defending Dissent Foundation
Essential Information
Government Accountability Project (GAP)
National Coalition for History
National Humanities Alliance
National Security Archive
OMB Watch
Special Libraries Association

You can find copies of the letters at and on the SAA website (