Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Access to Archives, Classification, and the Freedom of Information Act

Adapted from the Organization of American Historians Newsletter for May 2005.

As former chairperson of the little known OAH Committee on Research and Access to Historical Documentation, and a state archivist/historian, I was asked to prepare a short essay on “access to archives, classification, and the Freedom of Information Act.” This is a daunting assignment, one which two major government commissions (one reporting to the president the last week of March, 2005) have generated volumes of opinion and documentation relevant to the question. To paraphrase Ed Ayers in a C-SPAN presentation on his view of the digital future of research and writing, like a fool, I raised my hand.

I first consulted with the members of our committee who were able to participate in a conference call on March 25, 2005 for what I thought would be a half-hour meeting, and which ended after an hour and a half, producing a transcript that far exceeded my proscribed word limit. We were fortunate to have Bruce Craig leading us. He kept us current with the lobbying efforts of the National Coalition for History (NCH)&emdash;a nonprofit organization that represents the historical and archival professions&emdash;while Nancy Berlage, Walter Hill, and I probed with him such fundamental questions as how the “need to know” standard of the courts should be defined, how the right to know is conditioned by security needs (especially after 9/11), how access should be balanced by personal privacy, how and when executive privilege should be permitted, and above all, how does a democracy based upon majority rule, assure the public at large that it is basing its actions on a reliable, accessible record.

Fortunately, we then had a new Archivist of the United States , Allen Weinstein, who articulated a deep commitment to finding answers to these questions. In an interview, Weinstein made it clear that there is a distinction between any scholarly debate that might arise from his own scholarly endeavors (he welcomes the scholarly discussion) and his devotion to access within the context of a dependable and dynamic archival program. As many of us know, he pioneered in seeking documents under the Freedom of Information Act. He worked diligently to bring all presidential libraries under one coherent and accepted policy of access, and will not release any materials now at College Park that are not covered by such a policy based upon a signed agreement. He embraced advocacy for the revival of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) as a necessary and integral component of what the National Archives is all about. In my opinion, he was the first archivist since the ‘R’ was added to the National Historical Publications Commission to view the Commission as an essential aspect of the total program of the National Archives and to openly advocate full funding for both the records and publications programs. He also made it clear that he seeks broader cooperation among the other keepers of the collective memory of the nation, including the state archives, where a fair degree of entrepreneurial and innovative work has been undertaken to cope with such fundamental issues of access as the creation of permanent electronic archives. Weinstein and at several state archivists openly advocate the management of the flow of permanent electronic information into the archives from the moment of creation&emdash;delegating the advice on who should have access and when&emdash;to thoughtful panels of experts selected by the archives, panels that encompass the broad spectrum of differences that will arise.

While some latitude will inevitably be given to the people we elect to office to make decisions concerning access for the period of time they are in office, we ought not to permit them to do so beyond a reasonably prescribed time limit once they are out of office. Neither presidents nor national security advisers should have the right to close indefinitely, or remove from public view altogether, the record of their work. In the world of HIPPA regulations, we have permitted those who govern to stumble badly in passing laws so poorly written as to ignore that what is private health information for the living ought to become public and freely accessible information at some defined point in the future. That, indeed, is the essential point of all access concerns. In a democracy such as ours, there needs to be a time, a persistently forward moving date, after which all that has been identified as permanently valuable information is totally free and accessible.

Of course, determining what should be retained permanently in the massive rush of information that is generated every day is an even more difficult stumbling block than setting a time for release. In the desire to know what is happening and why, some rush to judgment, and, in the case of some television anchors, find themselves pushed into retirement, obscuring the fact that the questions they raised could not be answered precisely because the records no longer exist for whatever reason, legitimate or otherwise. To have faithful, full, and accurate reporting as history or as current events, a concerted effort must be made to ensure that accurate and complete records are maintained in an archival setting from their inception.

It is worthwhile for historians and archivists to expend some of their energies helping to establish and enforce standards of what we keep and why. If our principal means of communication is currently by Iphone, Blackberry, IPAD and email, then some effort needs to be undertaken to see to it that phone logs and essential electronic communications are both managed well and permanently kept, going directly from the moment of creation to an archival setting that at some defined point is fully accessible to the public.

Historians do need to be sensitive to the fact that Freedom of Information Act requests can paralyze a government agency that is faithfully attempting to do its assigned tasks. Some archivists, including this one, are all too aware of this problem, especially with regard to those requests that appear to be put forward by, or on behalf of, particularly disgruntled individuals who are not necessarily concerned with the best interest of the public at large. It is important that in seeking more rapid and open access to government information that adequate resources are given to the Archives and government agencies to manage, record, and maintain government information in a readily accessible format. It is also important that independent review boards are established to both screen frivolous requests and to provide legitimate guidelines for the release of public information in whatever permanent form it may exist.

If you have a chance, log into C-SPAN’s presentation of Ed Ayers’ March 14, 2005 talk at the Library of Congress on “The Digital Future”. Ayers enthusiastically looks to the future of research in the digital age and the importance of digital archives. It is a thoughtful tour de force based upon his work with the Valley of the Shadow archives and the experiment he did with William G. Thomas III, in writing an article exclusively in electronic form for what Ayers believes is permanent reference on a perpetually authoritative web site (initially funded by the NEH). The problem is that there is currently no such thing as a permanent electronic reference on a perpetually authoritative web site. JSTOR, Google Books, and possibly probably come as close as any experiment in establishing a permanent electronic archives and our efforts to place all land records in Maryland online may prove a viable model. The truth is that the essential records of governance about which historians are rightfully clamoring for access have not been, and are not now, being created in the context of how to make them permanently accessible. To answer the most pressing questions of declassification and access to permanent records requires historians, archivists, librarians, and the public in general to focus on what we currently save and how to save it permanently in a sustainable electronic archives. When we do that, at least, the future of history will be secure. In the meantime we will battle to preserve and make accessible that which by luck and design survives of the archival record.

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