Access to records of the National Archives

When I first started this blog, I did not want to write posts that concerned my former employer, the National Archives. I have changed my mind. I’ll write more about that in the next post.

The recent post, “Why Is It So Hard to Get Documents from the National Archives About the National Archives?” at the History News Network site is an example of the kind of story I feel obligated to write about. The post describes the difficulties researcher Anthony Clark has had in obtaining records from NARA’s Office of Presidential Libraries. Having worked at NARA, I read Mr. Clark’s post from a somewhat different perspective. I set aside the issues Clark raised about the FOIA process and NARA’s responsiveness (or lack thereof). What concerned me was this statement:

After several unexplained delays, NARA finally told me in June 2007 that officials consider every record that NL has ever created or received as “operational” (NARA’s term of art for records they deem “necessary for current operations or reference”) and available only through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Others who had concerns about that statement posted comments to the site (including Richard Cox and Maarja Krusten). I contacted some old friends and asked what was going on. I did not think it was possible that all records created since 1964 were “operational”–something else had to be going on. What I heard, through unofficial channels, is what was posted today in NARA General Council Gary Stern’s comment on the HNN site. The Office of Presidential Libraries (NL) had concerns about the records schedule that applied to its records and so had not transferred any of them to the National Archives. NL (the NARA acronym for the Office of Presidential Libraries) believed that under the schedule many records of permanent historical value would be destroyed, and so they held on to them.

While NL’s concern for the preservation of those records is laudable, what it did not do at any time since 1964 was work with NARA’s records management staff to negotiate the correct disposition of its records (or transfer any of the records that had been appropriately scheduled as permanent). Mr. Clark (and probably many other researchers) should never have had to engage in the FOIA process to access those records.

I was very pleased to see NARA admitting that it had make a mistake and committing to fixing it. What concerns me is the very real possibility that NL would not now be addressing its records scheduling problem if Mr. Clark had not made his situation public.  I have heard that NARA has been aware for some time that it needs to be more aggressive in its own records management, and that this has been identified as a priority. These are good intentions, but clearly they were not implemented in time to help Mr. Clark or other researchers seeking access to NL’s records.

Is it possible NL deliberately delayed updating their schedule in order to make it more difficult for researchers to learn more about the operations of the Presidential libraries? Of course it’s possible. Is it likely that this kind of foot-dragging and non-compliance with the records schedule goes on in other NARA offices and other government agencies? Of course.

Like all organizations, NARA has a tendency not to address its problems until they become the subject of a public controversy. In this case, NARA’s records management program and NL (at a minimum) have known since 1999 (at a minimum) that NL was not in compliance with NARA’s records schedule. Apparently this was considered such a low priority that at no time in the intervening nine years was a more appropriate schedule shepherded through the review and approval process. I know everyone in the Office of Presidential Libraries is very busy with very important matters, but, really, nine years?

I am glad that NARA says steps will be taken to correct the problem, but I will reserve judgment until I see that the proposed new schedule is available for public comment.  Richard Cox wrote in a comment on the HNN blog:

. . .  sometimes archivists have not provided the best management for their own records possessing archival value (the shoemaker’s children syndrome). If one systematically evaluated how archivists are maintaining their own records, I am sure more examples of such problems might surface (although without the difficulties of requesting access or forcing FOIA requests).

If NARA’s own records management program is like the shoemaker’s child, then maybe it is up to all of us to keep our eyes on its feet and make sure that NARA’s good intentions result in accessible records. Perhaps we in the archival and records management community should call on NARA to put forward their plan for ensuring all its units have current and complete schedules and that all appropriate records are successful in graduating from “operational” to “archival.”

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One Response to Access to records of the National Archives

  1. Maarja says:

    Very interesting essay, Kate, I really appreciate your illuminating some of this for me!

    And your guess turned out to be right, mine was wrong. I thought NARA would stay silent on this.

    I’ve put a long comment a few minutes ago under Gary Stern’s posting at HNN finally. Took awhile to compose, complicated stuff!


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