Promoting History as a Public Citizen: The AHA and the Federal Government
Arnita A. Jones, December 1999
It was a sweet victory, a moment to cherish. In October I was privileged to represent the American Historical Association at a press conference in Washington marking the opening of the 1947 grand jury records of the Alger Hiss case. Along with the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Archivists, and the American Society for Legal History we had been co-plaintiffs in a suit pursued by Public Citizen Litigation Group that aimed to unseal these six volumes of unique historic records. Not all of our efforts to help historians gain access to public documents have a happy ending but, in this case, with the parties to the process deceased and a compelling argument for the historical significance of the records, a U.S. District Appeals Court judge ruled in our favor. (See Page Putnam Miller's NCC Advocacy Update on page 8 of the December issue of Perspectives or at the NCC's web page for a full account of this case and of Judge Peter Leisure's decision.)
The AHA had no stake in whether these 50-year-old grand jury records would strengthen the case for or against Alger Hiss. That was not our concern. Rather, in joining this case as a co-plaintiff, we were doing what the Association has done for more than a 100 years—serving as a spur to encourage the federal government to make its records available to the public. Preparing for a talk at a meeting of the Society for History in the Federal Government this fall, I had occasion to look at some of the AHA's early records and reports and had already been reminded of the efforts made by generations of historians who worked through the Association on behalf of this goal.
Such work of persuading the federal government to listen to the voices of historians was facilitated by the AHA's location in Washington, D.C., a fact recognized by key leaders among the founders of the American Historical Association who were determined that it should have a presence in the nation's capital and a congressional charter. They began work on these goals as early as the mid-1880s and by 1889 their efforts had borne fruit as President Grover Cleveland signed into law a charter providing for a Washington-based organization that would have as its purpose not only the promotion of historical studies, but also the collection and preservation of historical manuscripts. As a part of this arrangement, the AHA would henceforth report annually to Congress through the Smithsonian Institution, while its papers and other collections would be deposited in the Library of Congress.
The terms of the charter continue to impinge upon the Association's affairs today. The Smithsonian published and paid for the printing of the AHA's annual reports for more than a century, leaving off only in 1995 under heavy budgetary pressures. As a result the AHA Council is now having to consider alternative measures for fulfilling that legislative mandate to report to Congress. In the short run we will probably "report" by providing to the House and to the Senate a full set of our publications, which contain annual reports by the executive director and officers. We are also prompted to begin thinking about publication of a more modern version of an annual report that will be of better use to our members and to other interested parties.
In the late 19th century the federal government, unlike its counterparts in western Europe, had no central repository for its records. The American Historical Association was an early advocate of the establishment of such a public records center but it took decades for these efforts to begin to pay off. Not until 1926 was legislation enacted authorizing construction of a building for a national archives in Washington and it was only in 1934 that the building was completed and a National Archives Act became law. Just as the AHA leaders had carefully scrutinized and regularly reported on the establishment of the new National Archives they also participated informally, but significantly, in the selection of a highly regarded professional as the first Archivist of the United States. Through its Committee on Historical Sources Materials created in 1936, the AHA also monitored and supported other New Deal legislation that attempted to address the need for white collar relief work with the efforts to inventory historical resources underway by the Works Progress Administration's Historical Records Survey or the Historic Sites Survey of the National Parks Service.
After the Second World War the AHA collapsed both its Committee on Historical Source Materials and its Committee on Government Publications into a new Committee on Historians and the Federal Government that was charged to assist the government in establishing sound criteria for the appraisal of its historical products, to encourage government agencies to publish those parts of their records that are relevant to the purposes of historical scholarship and to induce government agencies to make their records available to competent historical scholars. Over the 15 or so years of its existence the committee focused its work on these and other issues such as the Civil Service Commission's standards and procedures for recruiting historians for the federal service, access to records "classified" for national security reasons, as well as copyright legislation.
In 1976, when the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History (NCC) was created by the AHA, the Organization of American Historians, and several other historical and archival associations, the Resource Group on Federal History was one of its first priorities. As the NCC grew into a full-fledged advocacy organization under Page Putnam Miller's leadership several years later, the focus on federal history and records continued, with important victories in reestablishing the independence of the National Archives, the passage of legislation mandating of an Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation at the U.S. Department of State, ensuring the preservation of electronic records, and working with the National Park Service to ensure the use of recent scholarship in the interpretation of historic sites.
Most of the AHA's advocacy work during these last 20 years has been with and through the NCC, now a consortium of 59 historical and archival organizations. Not only has the NCC been an effective advocate on behalf of the historical profession it has also been—particularly since its collaboration with H-Net beginning in 1995—an extraordinarily reliable source of information for those engaged in advocacy activities over a wide range of issues. Less often noticed, but equally important, NCC has provided a forum where historians from various kinds of institutions can share both their different perspectives and mutual concerns. As we begin the process of transition to new leadership at the NCC we should recognize that we have a substantial tradition of advocacy work to uphold and to preserve for future generations.
—Arnita A. Jones is the executive director of the AHA.