Conference on the Power of Free Inquiry and Cold War International History
Session III Comments
James J. Hastings
It is my pleasure to discuss the presentations today. I have only one comment, in many parts.
There was a common theme that I picked up in each of the presentations we heard this afternoon, and also mentioned in both sessions earlier today. That theme is the importance of context in the understanding of records.
By context I mean why records were created, how they were used by the creating organization, and how they relate to the functions and other records of the creating agency. It is essential information for understanding a record. It is even more important now in this era of modern office automation because, as Mike Miller and Mark Conrad pointed out, context is in danger.
The importance of context is not a new idea. Herodotus included the beliefs and myths of the people of the ancient western world to provide context for an understanding of their actions. While not a new concern, it is a more formidable challenge in the modern era because of the recordkeeping changes that we deal with today.
Nick Natanson made it very clear in his paper that to fully understand the USIA photographs it is essential to know why USIA created them. As he points out, the purpose of the photographs was to show the world a glorious vision of the United States. Certainly the USIA photographs are what we would call "high context" records. What Nick describes as the "divergences between USIA visual construction and actual experiences" perfectly relates the context under which these photographs were created. Knowing this context allows us to analyze these records in a brighter light. We may admire the photos of the exterior views of the homes on the Cherokee reservation but knowing the context in which they were created and how they were used makes us question the photographs themselves and gives us insight into why there were no interior shots. The record does not stand alone; context allows for further understanding of the subject, the originating agency, and the cold war period in which the USIA functioned. The context itself is of great interest with these photographs.
In Mark Conrad's presentation we have a description of an electronic central file. The file he describes is neat, orderly, and cold. These electronic versions of textual records have been removed from related paper records. They are no longer physically associated with the files in Washington or the embassies. If they had not been physically disassociated from other records we would have great assistance in understanding their context and meaning. But at least with the State Department records we still have the contextual materials elsewhere, allowing researchers to place the electronic records in context. The office and lot files of the State Department are being preserved in paper and will be used to allow a full understanding of the electronic files once they are made available to the public.
But then we have Mike Miller's presentation. Mike has dramatically pointed out that the purpose of records has changed. Hence the context has changed too. Organizations in the modern office era, which I should stress began well before the end of the cold war, have gone from creating records to conduct business to creating records for audit purposes, or to cover their organizational behinds. Even worse, many organizations create records today with no context at all, producing what Mike calls the "records mishmash."
The most celebrated examples of the records mishmash come from e-mail systems. E-mail clearly is being used to conduct government business. Even though I understand the State Department has on record an admonition not to use e-mail to conduct official business, the most recent estimate that I heard is that agency employees create more than 200,000 e-mail messages per month. Either e-mail is being used by State Department employees for official business or those ambassadors have a very active social life and they communicate extremely well with their friends. Since it is being used to conduct government business, we need to fully understand the context of e-mail records. But, as Mike clearly indicated, e-mail is being maintained in undifferentiated buckets. E-mail records are not being maintained in recordkeeping systems where we can know their file designation or how they were used. In other words, we do not know their context.
Another threat to context is review of documents for public disclosure through FOIA or declassification, when such review is done on an item by item basis rather than systematically. This was not mentioned in this afternoon's panel, although it was the topic of much discussion in panels earlier today. While not denying the value of these processes for access to records of the American government, one has to question the utility of some of the documents that, in Tom Blanton's words this morning, have been "ripped out of context." We saw the redacted document that one of the audience members showed this morning. It was so redacted that there was no discernible content left, let alone context. I don't know how anyone can reach a valid conclusion based on such holes in a document.
Whenever I see a redacted document such as what was shown this morning I am reminded, as only an archivist would be, of Warren G. Harding and his papers. President Harding is said to have engaged in "extra-presidential affairs," to use a euphemism, during his administration. President Harding was a good record keeper so he kept copies of much of the correspondence he exchanged with participants in these affairs. These records were accessioned by the Ohio Historical Society and made available to a biographer of President Harding. But Harding family members sued to block the use of quotations from the letters in the biography so the publisher deleted the quotations from the text. Early editions of the book have white spaces where the selections from the letters were. It doesn't take much imagination to fill in the blanks and guess what President Harding and his confidant were discussing. Nevertheless, this is an example of how redaction can seriously impede the understanding of the historical record.
To sum up, we are in a situation now where researchers face an even greater challenge with the glut of information in modern records. Which byte among millions is the action item? Which unassociated e-mail reply is actually the record of a policy decision of an agency? We are not able at the present time to answer these questions in most instances because of the proliferation of electronic systems to create records but the lack of systems to maintain them in context.
Archivists, records managers, and program officials in agencies must face this challenge by creating and using recordkeeping systems that establish and maintain the context as well as the content of records. Unless we meet this challenge the American people will have to rely on the imaginations of researchers to fill in the blanks.
Now I do not wish to suggest that any of us, particularly members of this panel, are Luddites hoping to go back to the good old days of paper central files. Instead, what we are advocating is the use of technology to facilitate government functions and, at the same time, to enable the preservation of records and their context. Otherwise, we will never fully understand the history of the United States from the cold war and beyond.