The National Archives and Records Administration: Issues and Prospects
by John W. Carlin
Address to the American Historical Association
January 9, 1999
with Comments by William J. Maher, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
and president, Society of American Archivists
Good morning, and thank you for the opportunity to be here.
Less than a month ago, we had an exceptional event at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. More than 20 members of the press covered it. And approximately 400 persons attended it, many of them from other nations. They participated in a day-long symposium on the use of our records in what the press calls the search for "Nazi Gold" -- the current international effort to trace gold, artwork, and other assets looted by the Nazis from victims of the Holocaust.
The National Archives and Records Administration in the United States has played a major role in that effort. During the past three years, our staff has worked every day with researchers using our extensive holdings of archival records containing Holocaust-era information. We've provided records to United States government historians, historical commissions from other countries, U.S. Congressional staff members, private and academic historians, parties involved in litigation, journalists, and a variety of others attempting to discover the full truth about the assets of Holocaust victims. And this month we will make that research even easier. We will do it by publishing a major finding aid to relevant records, compiled by Dr. Greg Bradsher of our staff. In all these ways, the U.S. National Archives is supporting and encouraging the critical work that Under Secretary of State Stuart Eizenstat has appropriately termed, "turning history into justice."
"Turning history into justice." Our role in this has even attracted the attention of the press. Just last month, John Marks wrote the following in the U.S. News and World Report. "Archives are the key. Since 1996, when the Holocaust restitution effort gained new momentum, these quiet repositories have become drivers of world events. Their contents have forced apologies from governments, opened long-dormant bank accounts, unlocked the secrets of art museums, and compelled corporations to defend their reputations."
For those of us who care about both justice and history, this is gratifying. But there's a problem. Can we keep it up? Can we serve all the Holocaust asset researchers and also satisfactorily meet the needs of those of you who are working on other subjects? Your president, Professor Joseph Miller, came to my office recently. He explained that historians need NARA to increase the services we provide to researchers, and reduce the time they have to wait for them. And he's right. We are not meeting your needs well enough. But how to do it?
Last September 30, the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board went out of business. But the work it was doing did not end. The work goes on for us at the National Archives. We are now solely responsible for the JFK Assassination Records Collection.
Some 2,000 cubic feet of such records -- 4.5 million pages -- are now preserved in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. The collection contains material from the Warren Commission, which investigated the events of that dreadful day in Dallas on November 22, 1963. And the collection contains records from the FBI, the CIA, many other Federal agencies, and even private donors -- everything assembled by the Board that might shed light on the assassination and help resolve the controversies over whether Lee Harvey Oswald alone was responsible.
Conspiracy controversies were what brought the Board into being. As you know, the Warren Commission concluded that Oswald acted alone. But theories of a wider conspiracy to kill the President, given renewed attention by Oliver Stone's 1991 movie, JFK, created much public uncertainty. So much, that the Congress decided to pull together, and open for public study, as much record material related to the event as possible. And on October 26, 1992, President Bush signed the bill that created the Board, required establishment of the collection at the National Archives, and compelled Federal agencies to contribute all assassination-related records to it.
The Board did not get sworn in, however, until April of 1994. In the interim NARA went ahead to fulfill its responsibilities under the act. We started work on the assassination collection by searching our own collections for pertinent material. Also we accepted records that other agencies provided even without Board guidance. And we began developing the database through which you can now locate particular items in the collection. On August 23, 1993, still before any Board member had been appointed, NARA opened to the public what our staff had by then accumulated and organized, and more than 100 researchers showed up.
When the board's five members did receive appointment, they and their staff did an enormous amount of difficult and valuable work, to which several NARA units contributed assistance. Our appraisal archivists advised the board. NARA archivists familiar with the records of individual agencies suggested where to search for relevant material. The staff at our Center for Legislative Archives worked with the Board on records of the House Select Committee on Assassinations. And others on our staff kept -- and continue to keep -- a lookout for materials appropriate for the collection. For example, one of our archivists was examining some records that seemingly had no relation to the assassination when she discovered the report of a postal inspector's investigation into the sale of a rifle through the mail to Lee Harvey Oswald.
More discoveries will doubtless come. And organized searching continues at the FBI and CIA. They have memoranda of understanding with the Board giving them until September of 1999 to complete their contributions to the collection. And NARA staff remain at work on processing the collection for use by historians and everyone else who is interested.
Is this important? Obviously. Were we given additional resources to do it? No, no more than we were for the Holocaust asset research. Can we do it and also meet the other needs that Professor Miller described? Can we improve the service we try to provide you for research on so many other important subjects? Somehow we must.
On August 10 of last year, archivists on our staff began cutting apart the original White House tape recordings made by former President Richard Nixon. We did that under court order. We must return to the Nixon estate portions of the tapes that courts have ruled were Mr. Nixon's private property.
As you know, President Nixon secretly recorded many conversations during his administration. These tapes came to light during the "Watergate" investigation. The Presidential Recordings and Material Preservation Act of 1974, which the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in 1977, requires that the National Archives review these tapes. And it requires that we identify and return "private or personal" conversations, retain the rest, and open to the public material such as conversations related to "abuse of governmental power."
Regulations promulgated under the Act describe "private or personal materials" as materials that relate "solely to a person's family or other non-governmental activities, including private political associations, and having no connection with his constitutional or statutory powers or duties as President or as a member of the President's staff." The regulations further specify that "political materials" can be kept by the government "only when those activities directly relate to or have a direct effect upon the carrying out of constitutional or statutory powers or duties."
In 1997, a federal district court directed NARA to provide the estate of the late president "forthwith with all personal or private conversations identified to date" on the tapes and tape logs, and to destroy or return all additional private or personal material identified in the continuing review of the tapes. A U.S. court of appeals subsequently affirmed the order, with which we are complying.
This does not mean all is lost. In the continuing process of review, we have so far identified approximately 820 hours of recorded conversations that must be returned, which is less than one-quarter, 22 percent, of the 3,700-hour total. And despite the delicacy of the process, taped conversations that the law allows to be kept by the government will not be lost or harmed because the Archives can and is retaining them on preservation copies, usable with today's technology. Under a court-mediated agreement that I reached with the Nixon estate, the National Archives will continue to release, in stages, recorded material that the law allows to be made public.
Moreover, I am still hopeful that the Nixon estate itself might preserve and someday make public at least some of the private conversations. As Archivist of the U.S., I have asked the Nixon estate in a formal letter to accept the return of the entire master preservation copy so that the estate can preserve one intact copy of the private or personal information. This would allow the "political" conversations, which are included in those private or personal materials, to be preserved in context with other conversations and possibly to be made available to the public in the future.
In the meantime, there is an on-going trial in which the Nixon estate is seeking financial compensation for the government's taking of the tapes and other records. Happily for us, the National Archives is not a party to this suit. Some of our staff members, however, have been called to testify as witnesses, but, let me repeat, as an agency we are not involved in the case to decide how much, if anything, the government must pay to the Nixon estate.
Nonetheless, the on-going work of cutting the tapes will take from three to six years of work by several staff members. And preparing unrestricted portions for public release is time consuming as well. Those of you who use these materials are unhappy about how many years have been consumed already in reviewing material and wrangling in the courts about it. And so am I. But we expect to open another 445 hours of taped conversations this year. And we will get the rest of the job done as soon as we can.
This does require, however, a lot of resources. Yet if we don't do it, valuable historical research cannot go forward, just as it cannot if I don't find ways to improve our service to researchers on many other historical subjects. Professor Miller did not tell me to help historians just in certain fields at the expense of others.
Nonetheless, at the same time that we are dealing with the Nixon tapes, the JFK Assassination Collection, and the Holocaust-asset search, something else of concern to you is concerning us. We are working with the State Department on accessioning and preserving certain kinds of files of value in diplomatic history. These are electronic, not paper, cable files. And our ground-breaking effort to preserve them is a challenge because we are dealing with extremely large numbers of small electronic files. We face difficulties in providing meaningful access to such records. And doing so involves declassification issues and complex standards for transfer of the records to us.
Consider the magnitude of records with which we are dealing. Over the past quarter-century, the National Archives has taken in approximately 90,000 files of electronic records. But we estimate that agencies like the Department of State or the Treasury Department are individually generating -- annually, just in e-mail -- ten times that many files of electronic records that we are likely to need to preserve. That would be more than ten times as much from just one agency, in only one year, as the National Archives has taken in from the entire government in a quarter-century. Given current technology, it could take us years to copy electronic records we may get from the Clinton White House to the best preservation medium we now have for such records, and we might not finish before time to start recopying.
I have said many times that electronic records pose an unprecedented challenge to archivists and records managers. That is because of the vulnerability of such records to erasure, media instability, and technological obsolescence. It also is because they are mushrooming in quantity and in multiple formats. To deal with such recordkeeping issues, NARA must balance competing concerns. Users are eager for electronic access to electronic records now. Agencies are concerned about where the money and technologies will come from to meet that need. And we all fear the possible loss of electronic records in the meantime. Nonetheless, we can't lose a whole era of history just because its records are in electronic formats. And we're working aggressively at NARA to see that we don't. Can we succeed, and still provide the kinds of services that all of you need now?
By this time I hope I've made my point. There are huge, competing demands for our services just within areas of particular importance to you. I've said nothing about the needs of federal agencies themselves for better guidance from us on records management. I've said nothing about the thousands of requests we get from veterans who need military service records from us to document their entitlement to benefits. And I've said nothing of the needs of genealogists, journalists, lawyers, courts, legislators, environmentalists, business people, film and video producers, and scholars of other kinds besides historians. All of them need better help from the National Archives, just as you do. Nonetheless, in some very important ways, you are going to get better help from the National Archives.
In our Strategic Plan, and in testimony I've given to Congressional committees, I said that we'd do everything we could to make sure we were maximizing the use of available dollars. I said we would reorganize to break bottlenecks, end duplicative effort, and streamline our activities, all of which we are doing. But I also said that if the economies we achieved did not yield sufficient funds to enable us to carry out our mission, meet our statutory responsibilities, and serve researchers well, I would not hesitate to ask for more. And last year I did ask. I spent a lot of time talking to the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Congress about NARA's value and the needs of its customers. I spent a lot of time talking about the nation's history. And they've responded with what is a major multi-million-dollar budget breakthrough.
Let me caution that the increase is a significant first step, not in any way a total solution to our fiscal shortages. But it's big enough to finance some real progress. And it has come at a time when certain other government agencies were held at previous levels or even cut.
Among other things, funds in the bill will finance some additions to our staff while protecting our base funding so that we don't lose positions and programs in some areas to pay for something else. In past years we've had to absorb government-wide pay increases, and additional responsibilities such as the JFK Assassination Records Collection, without additional funds in our base budget to pay for them. In FY 99, we have no such problem. This does not make up for past setbacks, but for this year the base is covered, and the increases are on top of it.
The increased appropriations will enable us to take more steps toward preserving electronic records and improving government records management, so that material of historical value does ultimately make it into the archives. The appropriations will help us develop our program for making our records-storage services to agencies entirely reimbursable, which if successful could give us additional budget relief. The appropriations will help us begin to meet some too-long deferred facilities needs, so that the records will have better space for preservation and you will have better quarters for research.
Additionally, we're getting a half-million dollars more for competitive grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. That means a larger pool is available for grants in support of historical editors, who are producing scholarly editions of papers documenting outstanding national leaders from Thomas Jefferson to Jane Addams and Martin Luther King, Jr., and historical developments such as the Spanish colonization of the Southwest and the emancipation of the slaves.
Finally, the new appropriations will enable us to build on the work we've already been doing to expand access to records for you and the general public.
Last year, in a move of major importance to historians, we successfully opened the George Bush Presidential Library as part of our presidential library system. This was the culmination of years of preparation by NARA staff members from all over the agency. I'm sure many of you know what the opening of a major research and exhibit facility requires. In addition to staff who worked directly on Bush materials, our Office of Administrative Services helped with the facility. Our Office of Human Resources and Information Services helped with computer technology. Our electronic records staff helped us deal with the index to holdings that we inherited from the White House. And the staff now working in the Bush Library spent a lot of time getting ready for it by laboring in a converted bowling alley we leased in College Station, Texas. This is our tenth Presidential library, and though we have a lot of work yet to do there, its opening means that much new material is becoming available for studies of the Bush Presidency and developments throughout George Bush's long public life. And, of course, as with every presidency, we have been preparing well in advance to deal with records that will come to us from the Clinton Administration.
We've also made significant progress in opening many other kinds of documents to researchers. In Fiscal Years 1996 and 1997, the first two years in which President Clinton's declassification executive order went into effect, NARA declassified more pages of records than any other federal agency -- 227 million. That was more than half of the total pages declassified throughout the Federal Government. And in Fiscal Year 1998, NARA reviewed and released 92 million more pages of previously classified material.
Again, there is much more classified material for us to process. And the Congress just passed legislation that requires closer attention to classified materials containing information on atomic energy. Historians opposed this legislation, and so did I, because it seemed likely to slow declassification progress. As required by that legislation, we are working with the Department of Energy and others on a plan for reviewing such materials. NARA alone can't dictate that plan, but we are doing everything we can to reduce any delay it may require in declassification.
Sometimes people don't seem to understand how actively we at NARA are promoting declassification. We must observe statutory obligations, which we cannot and do not want to escape, to protect legitimate interests of individual privacy and national security. But the numbers speak for themselves: NARA itself has declassified 319 million pages of material in just the past three years. And I hope you are using it.
Previously I mentioned that we are ready to provide you access to more Nixon tapes this year. But Nixon was not the only president who recorded conversations. So did Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson, whose recordings we have been releasing. Last year the Kennedy Library in our presidential library system made the largest release of Kennedy recordings so far. They include conversations he had with Presidents Hoover, Eisenhower, and Truman. They deal with the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. space program, and events in Vietnam. All of this is now available to historians.
But our access efforts haven't stopped there. In addition to opening vast quantities of material of use to historians, we have made significant progress in making it easier for you to locate material you need.
In our Electronic Access Project, we are building an Internet-accessible catalog of NARA's holdings nationwide. Already, if you have computer access to the Internet from your home, office, or library, you can call up more than 380,000 descriptions of records in our custody. You can search for material of use in research on such topics as the Civil War, fugitive slaves, conservation history, and women at work. Please see for yourselves what we've made available at www.archives.gov, and you can do it even before you go home. Here in the National Archives booth in the exhibit hall, members of my staff will show you with a computer demonstration the kinds of research assistance now available to you by Internet from the National Archives.
The fact is, you can call up not only records descriptions but also many digital documents themselves. These range from Mathew Brady photographs to Albert Einstein letters. Just last month we added Civil War maps and Vietnam documents. Our goal is to put on-line 120,000 documents from collections of particular interest to researchers like you, your students, other teachers, and the public. The number available to you by Internet has already reached 100,000. And additionally we're creating an automated microfilm locator that will make access easier to some of our most heavily used records.
In other ways as well, we are continually expanding the usefulness of our web site to you and other NARA users. You will find all kinds of information about NARA activities and opportunities at www.archives.gov. We post much material there from special projects about which we request public comment. And through our web site you can reach the NARA Archival Information Locator and the JFK Assassination Records Collection Database I described. You and your students can tour on-line our electronic Exhibit Hall of historical documents, and those of you who could not see National Archives exhibits in Washington, such as our shows of World War II posters and art supported by the New Deal, can see them on your computer screen. Also you can use our Digital Classroom, which offers primary sources, activities, and training for educators and students. Currently, Digital Classroom topics include the history of the Constitution, and of the Amistad Case.
Bottom line, I urge those of you who haven't to take advantage of all the kinds of help for historical study that we now offer on-line. Certainly lots of people are using our multiple home pages. From the beginning of fiscal 98 to the end, "hits" on our web site grew by 238 per cent to more than 56 million. And I assume that many of those came from historians, because so much of what we offer electronically is for your students and you.
Though we are increasing electronic access, making all our documents electronically accessible would be financially prohibitive. So we continue to be concerned about space needs for paper records. Some of you have heard me explain that space costs are eating up NARA's budget, that we are nonetheless running out of records storage space, and that much of the space we do have is inadequate for records preservation, uncomfortable for staff, and inconvenient for researchers. We've taken three actions aimed at providing solutions to these problems.
First, last June we opened our new underground records center storage facility in Lee's Summit, Missouri. Because of a base closing, we had to vacate our records center in Bayonne, New Jersey. This required moving 617 truckloads of records to our facilities in Lee's Summit, Chicago, Dayton, and Suitland, which we accomplished successfully.
Second, with support from the Office of Management and Budget, we are seeking budget relief by creating the reimbursable records center program I mentioned earlier. Reimbursement will start in FY2000. In that year, all Federal agencies that ask us to store and retrieve their records will have to reimburse us for the cost of those services, as some agencies already do. We reimburse other agencies for services; it is only fair that they reimburse us.
Of course, we still need to plan for more space for our regional archives as well as records centers, and for more of the kind of space that will ensure the preservation of records. Though the National Archives at College Park is a fine new facility, the original National Archives in Washington clearly needs extensive renovation. We made plans for it back in 1984, updated the plans in 1997, and have received the first real dollars for the project in our budget for this year. Renovations needed in Presidential libraries also are underway or being planned. And thanks to Senator Ted Stevens, the Congress has just appropriated funds to begin the design process for a new records facility in Alaska.
But also we need to determine how best to cope with the storage and preservation needs of growing volumes of records in our other facilities, from the Washington National Records Center to the military personnel center in St. Louis to our three facilities on the West Coast. We must have more space, and better space, that meets needs such as yours cost-effectively. How to get that is what a NARA Space Planning Team last year began to study.
We've made achievements as well in preserving certain endangered records of historical value. For example, we used $1.4 million in FY'98 appropriations to buy equipment to increase our in-house preservation capacity. The money also went to contract for outside help in duplicating or reformatting hundreds of video tapes, sound tracks, aerial photos, and audio belts and disks threatened by obsolescence and/or deterioration. These are major steps in preventing the loss of valuable resources in our holdings. To historians this means preventing the loss of images and voice recordings from the Depression, the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War.
Well, by now I can almost hear what's going through the mind of Professor Katz as he prepares to comment on these remarks of mine. He joined Professor Miller at the meeting with me last fall. And he may well say something like this: "Okay, John, you sound like you really are helping historians. You are well on your way to giving us lots of research aids and digitized records and teaching resources via the Internet. You have opened lots of new material from the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Bush presidential eras, and you are even trying to persuade the Nixon estate to save tapes that the courts won't let you keep. You're providing special help with the Holocaust assets search, and you're developing ways to save such electronic records as important State Department cables. You've declassified mountains of material. And the President and the Congress are now helping you with a big budget increase. But what about the original question that Joe Miller and I talked to you about in your office? Are historians going to get records faster in your reference rooms?
I'm happy to reply that the answer is, yes.
As researchers, you have grounds to feel frustrated. I know because I've read the report my staff produced last year on difficulties our customers encounter in our research facilities. We don't have enough people helping researchers. The people we do have sometimes aren't knowledgeable enough. Our rules can be confusing. And by phone, mail, or in the research rooms, we don't provide what researchers want fast enough.
My staff has produced 90 recommendations for improvements we can make. At the top of the list is the establishment of customer service centers equipped to provide more effective and efficient help to researchers. We also have plans for increasing archival assistance and equipment in textual research rooms, increasing opportunities for on-site electronic access by researchers, improving our systems for pulling records and refiling them, improving the consistency and clarity of our rules for handling records, and streamlining procedures for the self-service copying of certain kinds of records. We will begin instituting changes this year. You will not see rapid, dramatic improvements. But things will improve.
In conclusion, I would like to say something about my experience as Archivist of the United States. I have held the job now for three and a half years. The problems at times have seemed overwhelming. The prospect of dealing with ever-mounting quantities of electronic records seems even more overwhelming. But last year, I said to members of the Congress at an appropriations hearing, "When the record of our country is at stake, being overwhelmed is not a choice."
As I was preparing this address, the United States Government resumed military action against the government of Iraq. You will recall that the Gulf War originally began when Iraq made an attempt to take over the nation of Kuwait. But it was more than the borders of the Kuwait that Iraq intended to erase. It was also the separate identity of Kuwait's people. One of the United Nations' resolutions that led to the Gulf War was a condemnation of attempts by Iraq (and I quote) "to destroy the civil records maintained by the legitimate government of Kuwait."
Why? Because such records document the legitimacy of a government. And such records document whatever legal standing, rights, and entitlements the citizens of a country have. However democratic or undemocratic Kuwait itself may have been, Saddam Hussein certainly understood that getting rid of records, or otherwise denying access to them, makes it a lot easier to end a nation's independence and subjugate its citizens. The Serbs in the Bosnian War seem likely to have understood that, too, when they shelled the National Library in Sarajevo along with other cultural institutions. And when the founding fathers and mothers of our own country revolted against the king of Great Britain, the charges they made against him in the Declaration of Independence included this one: "He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records . . . ."
Records matter in people's lives. Records matter in the life of a nation. And records matter in the conduct of democratic government. Records document the identities, rights, and entitlements of citizens. They document the actions for which officials are accountable. And they document historical experience and memory, so that it can be assessed and reassessed as historians continuously seek better understanding of what has happened to us collectively and with what effect.
Therefore I repeat, when the record of our country is at stake, being overwhelmed is not a choice. No one will understand that better than you, on whom the rest of us depend for historical understanding. And with your understanding, your support, your help, I am going to keep working to secure the funds we need, improve the services you need, and prevent the challenges from overwhelming this essential institution, the National Archives and Records Administration, which historians struggled so hard to get established in the first place. I look forward to working with you now in the effort to solve the new problems that confront effective record keeping. We can do it, and we will. There really is no other choice.
Thank you very much.
"National Archives and Records Administration: Issues and Prospects"
COMMENTARY ON REMARKS BY JOHN CARLIN
William J. Maher
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
American Historical Association Annual Meeting
Washington, D.C., January 9, 1999
NOTE: These comments are posted by permission of the author. Anyone wishing to quote from this text should contact William J. Maher at W-MAHER@ux1.cso.uiuc.edu for permission.
Caveat: My remarks reflect my general observations as an archivist who has worked for more than 20 years outside of the National Archives. Although I have held leadership positions in the Society of American Archivists and the Midwest Archives Conference, my views are my own and may or may not coincide with any positions of those organizations.
It is not possible to relate the archival profession's perspective on the National Archives without first considering a bit of history. When the National Archives was established in 1934, the American archival profession was in its infancy, without a professional organization, a scholarly journal, a publications program, an educational structure, or a means for internal professional communication. The establishment of the National Archives was the impetus for the 1937 founding of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the organization which has become the predominant identifying icon of the profession. 1
For the next two decades, the staff of the National Archives shaped and dominated the profession. National Archives staff served in key leadership roles in the SAA, creating much of the professional literature, while they also posed and researched fundamental professional questions such as appraisal, preservation standards, and guidelines for arrangement and description. By the 1950s, the National Archives' Modern Archives Institute and its records management workshops became the primary training ground for archivists throughout the United States such that many who came to lead the archival profession and the SAA in the late 1960s and 1970s began their careers through the National Archives, even if they spent their careers entirely in institutions far from Pennsylvania Avenue or presidential libraries. At the same time, and very much as a development from the same roots that gave rise to the National Archives, there was a significant expansion and professionalization of state archives. Thus, in the 1950s and 1960s, we saw the ascendancy of state archivists in the profession and the SAA. The 1960s witnessed a sea change in the profession with the great expansion in college and university archives, special collections repositories, and the development of academically oriented historical records programs in state, local, and private historical societies. What's more, these programs frequently generated their own recruits to the profession through apprenticeships and cooperative arrangements with suddenly-expanding archival education programs based in history departments and library schools.
The 1970s saw the growing predominance of the extra-National Archives archivists, educational programs, and professional associations, especially the creation of several regional organizations and the creation of a permanent office for the SAA. Perhaps the most fundamental result was the fact that the hallmarks of being a professional could be secured, if not defined, outside of work at the National Archives. Meanwhile, for reasons that are too complex to develop here, the National Archives seemed to lose much of its internal effectiveness. The experience of the Nixon Papers became a further signal that the Archives' placement within the General Services Administration (GSA) was as philosophically inappropriate as it was budgetarily inadequate. Through the direction and interest of a number of SAA leaders, especially SAA's first Executive Director, Ann Morgan Campbell, the archival profession joined forces with historians in the long struggle for National Archives independence from the GSA. In that era, many of the fundamental archival problems that concern archivists and historians today (e.g. declassification, electronic records, space and facilities) took a back seat to the overriding issue of independence. Consequently, although there was the appearance of unanimity, because of focus on the unifying issue of independence, there were key archival problems on which many professionals disagreed strongly with the Archives' actions. Many of these surfaced after NARA's 1984 independence from GSA.
In the post-independence era, a primary focus of archival/NARA relations has been on the often divisive issue of who should be the Archivist of the United States. In a sense, the die was cast by the first appointment in 1985/1986 when the leading nominee of the Reagan administration was John Agresto, a political scientist and protege of conservative luminary William Bennett. Archivists and historians readily came to agreement in opposing the nomination of someone who lacked archival and historical background and carried obvious political if not ideological affiliations in exactly the way we had all hoped would be overcome through the establishment of independence for NARA. In the end, the coalition against Agresto managed to stall the nomination long enough that it died. In his stead, another Republican favorite, Don Wilson, emerged as a viable candidate. While in retrospect we can remember our misgivings about the appointment, Wilson had undeniable archival and historical credentials through his administration at the Ford and Eisenhower libraries.
With Wilson's appointment, there developed increased discomfort between the archival profession and the National Archives. On the one hand, the rapidly maturing profession that had developed and strengthened independent of NARA included many specialists who took strong issue with several NARA policies on technical questions such as electronic records, preservation standards, user services programs, and educational requirements. On the other hand, several archivists inside and outside of NARA quietly and discretely worried about the lack of strategic planning within the agency and the inability of the agency to make headway in appropriations. The worst fears of archivists and historians seemed to come to fruition in the signal case of the early 1990s when NARA leadership took a position on the nature of electronic records in the politically-tinged PROF's case. While the profession had earlier divided on whether to take a specific position regarding Oliver North's records, by 1992 there developed the strong sense among many archivists that NARA's position on the status of North's e-mail undermined the concept of government records and was theoretically a backward step for electronic records issues. Thus, many non-NARA archivists were pleased by Judge Charles Richey's decisions against Wilson and the Archives' position on e-mail.
The immediate circumstances of Don Wilson's 1993 departure, shortly after signing a special memorandum about the status of Bush presidential material, focused the archival profession's concerns about the political independence it wanted to see in future appointments of the Archivist of the United States, especially in regard to presidential politics. In this context, you can appreciate the zeal and concern with which archivists observed the protracted process the Clinton administration followed for appointing a successor to Don Wilson. From the previous Agresto experience we learned that we needed to be prepared to speak up early in opposition to candidates we believed lacked the historical and archival background for the position or who appeared to be under consideration primarily because of political contacts. Thus, we moved quickly to oppose Robert Hardesty, who advanced his case in 1993/1994. We also understood the importance of having viable alternative candidates and thus spent time interviewing several individuals.
As with the Hardesty candidacy, given the profession's history, it is not surprising that we came to oppose the nomination of John Carlin. While we appreciated the value that could come from an experienced public administrator and a person well-skilled in public relations and advocacy, we were very concerned with the precedent-setting character of the political context out of which the nomination seemed to emerge. We feared that by moving away from a primary emphasis on professional and historical credentials, even in the case of a candidate with other obvious merits, we would be opening the door for future U.S. Presidents to appoint candidates who might have more connections and fewer qualifications than we saw in 1995. 2
I still believe that the basis for our position was philosophically and professionally sound as well as consistent with past positions. However, as it turns out, the National Archives under John Carlin has made significant progress on many issues important to archivists, and thus to historians as well. Speaking for myself, and not as a representative of the SAA, I and several other archivists with whom I have spoken are pleased with much that has been done at NARA under John's leadership. Strategic planning has become a fact of life at the agency and a critical tool for dealing with major administrative issues that arise. Policies on some key areas that greatly troubled archivists, such as electronic records, have been reversed. Above all, NARA has actively sought to create and maintain a dialogue with the profession on important issues. Although areas of contention or potential strife still exist, such as space planning, we have been pleased that serious and genuine consultation has been the cornerstone of discussion. Considering the unabashed opposition we presented to John's nomination, his personal readiness to work with us has been most commendable and encouraging.
In the balance of my remarks, I would like to offer very brief observations on seven key policy issues currently facing the National Archives. Although I speak solely from my personal archival perspective, I believe my comments are reflective of broader sentiments of my archival colleagues and are illustrative of the principles at stake.
Space Planning: Archivists understand the critical space and facility issues facing the National Archives at the Washington and regional facilities. Except for Archives II, NARA lacks archival quality space and sufficient quantities of space. The regional system, although effective at reaching researchers in several urban areas, provides only partial coverage while also incorporating some rather notable locational anomalies. Most critical are the overall shortage of space in regional facilities and the very poor environmental conditions. In the context of financial management issues, archivists are pleased that a reassessment of the space issue has begun. We applaud the driving principle that the status quo is unacceptable and that reconfigurations might be necessary to obtain sufficient quality space for records while also utilizing technology to expand accessibility for users beyond the present level. We appreciate the political sensitivity of such a study, and we applaud the careful efforts that have been made to hold public hearings throughout the country. However, we would also like to emphasize principles which should guide the process in the next stages: any recommendations that emerge should be based on a rigorous cost-benefit analysis of the facilities both on their own terms and in relation to other parts of the National Archives system, including comparisons to Archives I and II and the presidential libraries. Furthermore, a report of the space planning group covering findings to date and outlining options for facilities and sites should be produced as soon as feasible.
Standards: Archivists are pleased to learn of the progress in developing standards for the housing of temporary records, and we look forward to being able to view and comment on the draft standards. This is a classic example of where sound work on NARA problems can have important exemplary benefits for the profession as a whole, and we hope these standards will strengthen the hand of archivists throughout the United States in working to improve environmental conditions in their own institutions.
Defense Department Standard: Archivists have been quite hopeful about the work of NARA with the Defense Department to develop standards for records management software applications, which recently resulted in DOD Standard 5015.2 (Design Criteria for Electronic Records Management Software Applications). We have not had a chance to look at these criteria yet, but we appreciate the importance of developing guidelines which archivists can present to systems personnel so that effective records management options can be developed for such important electronic systems as e-mail. This long overdue work promises to be of benefit to archivists throughout the country. Furthermore, we anxiously anticipate the next step of operational guidelines and baseline requirements for an electronic records management system.
General Records Schedule 20--Electronic Records: There have been many encouraging developments as a result of the Public Citizen lawsuit against the National Archives to block the implementation of GRS-20 which had tried to provide a generalized disposal authorization for electronic records. Still, I fully support the arguments behind the SAA's refusal to sign- on to this 1997 suit because of conceptual problems in the suit. Many archivists have been supportive of SAA's criticisms as voiced in its 1997 position paper on the suit and GRS-20.3 Indeed we are most encouraged by the approach taken by the Archives in response to the suit, and even more, the substance of the recommendations of the Electronic Records Working Group (ERWG).4 The ERWG recommendations are quite consistent with SAA's position on GRS-20 and especially gratifying in their focus on the necessity of using specific records schedules to cover program records and on avoiding the scheduling of records by media. At the same time, we would want to emphasize that it should be the archivist's prerogative to decide how and when to reformat records. We understand the added value that electronic records have when kept in their original form, but we realize that reformatting is sometimes a necessary step for their professional management. In relation to GRS-20, we would also like to commend NARA for making a serious effort to incorporate individuals from outside the National Archives in the working group to ensure that it would benefit from the critical thinking of leading specialists in the field--a fact that reflects NARA's recognition of the maturing of the profession. We hope that this same collaboration will extend to the follow-on group that is to be appointed--we hope at an early date.
NHPRC: Archivists throughout the country continue to bemoan the low level of funding available for critical records projects. The recent increases in funding for NHPRC have been encouraging, although with the continued emphasis on the needs of the documentary edition projects, support of records projects has had to remain at a low level. We are particularly disappointed by the fact that more money has not been made available for electronic records projects. The experience of ERWG clearly shows that electronic records issues are so complex that solutions must be developed outside the federal government as well as inside. NHRPC is virtually the only federal source of funds for research and development on technical archival issues.
Declassification: We are all aware of the enormous problems that researchers face when dealing with records that have been classified for national security purposes, and we understand that the core of the problem lies not at the National Archives but in the agencies that establish the original classification. For several decades, archivists have regretted the enormous resources that have been required to administer the declassification of older federal records. Although at the base, the declassification function is not inherently an archival one, it is compatible with the core archival mission of supporting accountable government. For these reasons, archivists were pleased with President Clinton's 1995 Executive Order 12958 which called for accelerated declassification through "bulk declassification." We are particularly proud of the National Archives' role in the declassification of nearly 300 million documents since the existence of the Executive Order.5 Last fall, archivists spoke out strongly against the original provisions of the Kyl amendment, which sought to reinstate page-by-page declassification for 25-year old records to protect Department of Energy information. We are pleased with the compromise which calls for NARA and DOE to develop a plan to prevent inadvertent release of records containing Restricted Data through Automatic Declassification. We are, however, concerned lest the conservative tendencies of DOE prevail over the archival and historical interests in following the spirit of the Executive Order for declassifying historically-valuable records.
Education and Professional Credentials: As the archival profession has grown in the past three decades, it has come to be dominated by archivists trained in university-based programs of archival studies, library science, and public history. It has increasingly attempted to take control over the criteria used by employers to hire archivists, notably through a certification program and increasing emphasis on standards for graduate archival education programs. In the process, many of my colleagues have grumbled about NARA's distance from these developments. In particular, they have been concerned that the archetypical path is for NARA to appoint archivists as entering professionals based on advanced graduate training in American history but little archival experience or training. In general, there has not been an open door for archivists from other institutions to come to work for NARA or vice versa. We appreciate that much of the reason for these conditions stems from federal personnel management regulations and conditions. We are encouraged by the recent word we have heard that NARA staff are beginning to address what should be the federal qualifications for archivist, a process that could lead to revisions to the federal personnel handbook. I sincerely hope that NARA will find a means to consult with the archival profession, especially the SAA and the Academy of Certified Archivists on these issues before the federal manual is revised. We also believe that serious thought should be given to allowing the internal education program (CIDS) to become superseded by external archival educational programs. There is too much archival talent inside and outside of NARA not to encourage strong interchange of professional personnel.
In sum, there are several recent encouraging developments at NARA that hold the promise of benefiting the archival profession at large. We are particularly encouraged by the increased evidence of collaboration and we hope that under John Carlin's leadership this will continue and expand. At the same time, we understand the tendency of historians and archivists to be ready to criticize NARA on archival and information policy issues. We believe, however, that more will be gained by trying to channel these critical perspectives into collaboration through early consultation of the Archives with the professions and the professions with the Archives.
My final word is a cautionary one for the National Archives, inspired by the observations of a colleague. NARA is an important and accomplished public institution, but it no longer needs to exist as a self-sustaining archival enterprise, as it did 30 to 60 years ago. We will all benefit by greater integration of the Archives with the profession. NARA should take advantage of the overall strength of archival programs throughout the county--programs which educate archivists and conduct research on fundamental archival issues faced by all of us who care about maintaining an accountable record of our government and the rich historical heritage of our society.
1. For an excellent overview of the development of the profession and the SAA, see J. Frank Cook, "The Blessings of Providence on an Association of Archivists," American Archivist 46 (Fall 1983): 374-399. Return to text.
2. The many press articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, and Chronicle of Higher Education provide the details of the Hardesty and Carlin nominations. For example see, "Former Governor Is Nominated to be Archivist over Objections of Academic Groups," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 19, 1995. Return to text.
3. Society of American Archivists, "Archival Issues Raised by Litigation Challenging General Records Schedule 20," May 3, 1997. Return to text.
4. Electronic Records Working Group, "Report to
the Archivist of the United States," September 14, 1998, http://www.archives.gov/records_management/
policy_and_guidance/electronic_records_work_group.html. Return to text.