Viewpoints

A National Treasure at the Brink: Survey Highlights Historians’ Love of, and Frustration with, the National Archives

Richard Immerman, Kenneth Osgood, and Carly Goodman, April 2014

From the Viewpoints column in Perspectives on History.

The US National Archives are in serious trouble, according to a recent survey, with grave implications for democratic governance and timely historical research. Nearly 800 historians responded to the survey, conducted by the Society for the History of American Foreign Relations, and their responses highlighted both the central importance of the US National Archives and its steady deterioration. While covering a wide range of topics, the respondents overwhelmingly bemoaned the underfunding of the archives and the misallocation of what funding exists. Historians recommend that processing, declassification, and services to researchers take priority over digitization.

The survey stemmed from concerns that arose within the Advisory Committee on Historical Documentation to the Department of State (aka the Historical Advisory Committee, or HAC), which is statutorily charged with monitoring, evaluating, and, to the extent possible, facilitating the review and release of the department’s official records. By 2011, the HAC had become deeply alarmed that the mandatory review and declassification system was failing. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) was falling farther and farther behind the targets established by President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13526, issued in December 2009, which mandates that agencies must declassify a document within 25 years of its date of issue or justify its continued classification. Following a series of meetings with NARA’s senior staff, the committee concluded, in its 2012 annual report, that NARA “currently lacks a plan, the backlog is growing, it is woefully understaffed, and its morale is the lowest of any government department or agency. NARA’s leadership must act now. The fiscal environment is not improving, and the volume of federal records to review, transfer, and process is exploding.”

How Important Are Declassified Documents to Your Historical Research?

Source: Historical Documentation Survey, a survey of 784 researchers by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. www.shafr.org/nara-survey

When NARA’s strategic plan failed to allay these concerns, the HAC recommended that the Historical Documentation Committee (HDC) of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) formulate a strategy to bring greater public attention to the crisis confronting NARA and at the same time offer guidance and assistance. After receiving encouragement from the National Coalition for History, the Organization of American Historians, and the American Historical Association, and funding from SHAFR, the HDC designed a survey in order to collect data on the scholarly community’s perceptions, preferences, and prescriptions.

Distributed via websites, Facebook, Twitter, Listservs, e-mail, and word of mouth, the number of responses exceeded our most optimistic projections. Predictably, given the survey’s genesis, more than half (58 percent) identified their field of expertise as the history of US foreign relations, but a robust minority self-identified as either “US Other” or “Other.” More than 40 percent identified themselves as professors, slightly less than 30 percent as graduate students, 6.4 percent as independent ­researchers, and 5.7 percent as public historians. Other occupations included archivists, librarians, military officers, government officials, and undergraduates. Significantly, some two-thirds of the total respondents indicated they had extensive archival experience and had used the National Archives within the last three years; three-quarters had done so within the last five years. This data is important; the respondents were largely ­experienced and expert.

Historians perceive the National Archives as more than grist for their scholarly or ­instructional mills (multiple comments emphasized the archives’ pedagogical value). Respondents peppered their comments with statements that emphasized the fundamental importance of the archives: “This is our history, and is a national treasure every bit as valuable as any park or monument.” “A democracy cannot function effectively without governmental transparency.” Without this transparency, “The federal government becomes increasingly opaque, and this is a tremendous problem for the political culture of the US, not only for professional historians.” These and similar ­responses suggest that historical organizations and NARA officials should underscore the integral relationship between NARA and American values.

Notwithstanding budgetary constraints, NARA’s diverse stakeholders must continue to seek more funding, a lot more funding, by forcefully articulating the extent to which the lack of financial support for NARA is debilitating this national treasure. Not surprisingly, 92 percent of the 693 respondents to the question about whether Congress should allocate more funding responded yes. Much more revealing, and surprising, are their comments about the effects of the meager funding. Prior to launching the survey, HCD and HAC received countless complaints about the deteriorating quality of NARA’s services. Yet the survey comments trended more toward sympathy than criticism.

Certainly there was grumbling, and many researchers with decades of experience noted the steady decline in expertise, efficiency, and openness in NARA facilities: “The service that the Archives provides has deteriorated markedly in the last thirty years.” “The days of highly qualified and available records specialists such as John Taylor and Sally Marks, who actually welcomed researchers, are long gone.”

Yet, unexpectedly, between 80 and 85 percent of those who expressed an opinion on the attentiveness and the subject expertise of NARA staff rated it satisfactory or better, and only around 15 percent rated it as poor. Moreover, even highly critical respondents attributed the staff’s ­shortcomings primarily to their working conditions and lack of resources: “I can’t blame any individual archivists for the general lack of archivist assistance at NARA—the main problem is that they are severely understaffed.” “I think the attentiveness of the archivists is as good as it can get. The problem is that there [are] too few of them.” “The overall picture is dire. Archivists are so swamped and overwhelmed they barely have time to explain to me how to look for records, let alone think through with me as to which records would best answer my research question.” “It used to be that an archivist would grab onto a problem of yours and work with you to solve it—I haven’t experienced that lately.”

The survey data unequivocally signal that NARA must receive the requisite funds to hire more staff, and more staff with expertise in both subject matter and the historian’s skill set, to improve both finding guides and search engines and to prepare fulsome descriptions of documents withheld from declassification. Increased funding is also essential to address the other chief crisis that the respondents identified at NARA: delays in the processing, release, and transfer of documents.

To What Degree Do You Think the Government Overclassifies Documents?

Source: Historical Documentation Survey

Respondents recognize the vital importance of digitizing archives. Yet digitization should be a second-tier priority, according to the respondents, more than three-quarters of whom identified the timely review, release, and processing of documents as a higher priority. Indeed, respondents overall rated declassification and processing of documents as the number one priority. NARA lacks the personnel and technologies needed to review the ever greater volume of documents, a growing proportion of which are now electronic. It has to obtain the necessary input from the myriad departments and agencies that by current statute must rule on declassification. And documents must undergo a separate examination by the Department of Energy, required by the 1999 Kyl-Lott Amendment, to prevent the release of data related to nuclear matters.

Exacerbating the inadequate resources is the declassification system. Here, the survey data are no less unequivocal, ­concurring with the Public Interest Declassification Board (PIDB), established by President Obama, in underscoring the system’s ineffectiveness. A majority of respondents, to our surprise, ranked the availability of declassified documents as adequate or better. But what that means is unclear. Almost all the comments highlighted delays and backlogs. Moreover, of those respondents who felt comfortable expressing an opinion on declassification, more than 88 percent were critical, with almost half of those recommending a radical overhaul. Some of the recommendations were surprising and unrealistic—although they doubtless reflected the frustration of researchers. Yet most ideas, such as streamlining the process, improving the training of reviewers, standardizing guidelines across agencies, inviting the input of scholars (with clearances) in revising guidelines, and enforcing the mandated time limits by which an agency must either declassify a document or justify withholding it from declassification, are reasonable and in accord with the PIDB’s report.

This brief synopsis only scratches the surface of the survey’s results. The data are informed, they are richly textured, and they attest to the experience, expertise, and passion of the remarkable volume of respondents. The National Archives are a national treasure, but a national treasure that has been woefully neglected, with grave implications for informed democratic governance. The agency needs funds desperately—for processing, for assisting researchers, for accelerating declassification, and for reviewing and revising the classification system. But to receive more funding, it needs champions. The survey provides robust evidence of its champions throughout the scholarly community. Those who work for NARA, at all levels, likewise are champions. But it is Congress that allocates funding, and the White House that sets national priorities. Will they champion NARA as well? The survey suggests steps to take, large and small. Let’s all do what we can to make sure it’s read by those who have the power to help.

So send this essay to your local representative and senator. Send it to your university president, the head of your museum, library, historical society, and community leader, and of course send it to the archivist of the United States, David Ferriero. Today, the crisis in the National Archives is not on the public radar screen. It can be tomorrow if we all do our part.

Richard Immerman, professor of history at Temple University, chairs the Advisory Committee on Historical Documentation to the Department of State and SHAFR’s Historical Documentation Committee.

Kenneth Osgood is associate professor and director of the McBride Honors Program in Public Affairs at the Colorado School of Mines and serves on SHAFR’s HDC.

Carly Goodman is a PhD candidate in history at Temple University.

Read the complete survey results at www.shafr.org/nara-survey.

The AHA's Comments on NARA's Strategic Plan

NARAIn the summer of 2013, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) circulated its draft strategic plan for fiscal years 2014 through 2019 for public comment. Former AHA President Kenneth Pomeranz and Executive Director James Grossman submitted comments. While ­commending NARA's attempt to address the complex issues relating to digitization of records and the simultaneous challenge of providing access to unprecedented quantities of born-digital materials, the comments identified several concerns. These are excerpted below:

  • How will NARA maintain the commendable deep and specialized knowledge of its staff in the transitions ahead? . . . Given the increased difficulty of maintaining such expertise, and the recent impact of budget cuts and other staffing changes, what will NARA do to provide researchers with the knowledge of context, provenance, etc. that archivists have long offered through direct consultation?
  • What will become of original documents as digitization goes forward? Historians would like to be assured that originals of all significant documents will still be preserved.
  • How will the process of digitization affect access in the short run-that is, while the process is ongoing?
  • The AHA is encouraged that the Strategic Plan emphasizes openness and public access to government records, and identifies making an ever-increasing number of records available to the public as a key objective. However, we note with much concern the vast backlog of records that remain classified. . . . The Strategic Plan ought to emphasize the importance of this process and convey the urgency to get it done, in addition to offering a road map toward that objective. Moreover, the AHA is concerned that the worthy goal of digitizing existing processed materials might diminish the already scarce resources that are needed to process the vast quantity of born-digital records that are continuing to enter the collections.
  • The draft points to the presence of education and public programming in NARA's agenda. . . . NARA has done excellent work in the recent past in its outreach to teachers, students, and the general public, and we hope that it will continue to allocate adequate resources and staff expertise in this area.
NARA's draft strategic plan can be found at: www.archives.gov/about/plans-reports/strategic-plan.

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