History Coalition Gets NARA Grant to Help with Missing, Stolen, or Alienated Documents
Bruce Craig, February 2006
From The Coalition Column column of the February 2006 Perspectives
- White House Issues New FOIA Executive Order
- History Is Slipping Away Says Report
- Library of Congress Advances Plan to Create a World Digital Library
- Congressional Update: House/Senate Agree on Education Bill
- Senators Byrd and Frist Spar Over Senate History and Tradition
The National Coalition for History (NCH) has signed a memorandum of understanding and received a $20,000 grant from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for the support of a pilot project to systematically search manuscript auction and sales Internet web sites, listings, and print catalogs to identify missing or stolen federal, state, local, and international government records. Once identified by history coalition staff such documents are brought to the attention of NARA officials (if the document appears to be a federal record) or referred to officials at other appropriate repositories (i.e. state or other governmental archives), which in turn decide whether to seek recovery through donation, replevin, or other legal means.
According to Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, "I am pleased that the National Archives is partnering with the National Coalition for History on this critical issue. It is imperative that the entire historical and archival community remain vigilant in identifying and reclaiming materials that have been stolen from our nation's repositories. This agreement is a step forward in helping the National Archives recover unique historical documents that we hold in trust for our citizens."
In fact, the history coalition has informally and rather haphazardly monitored such sites over the last three years, but until now has not had the staff or resources to systematically monitor the sale of documents and other manuscript materials. As part of this initiative, already history coalition staff have looked at 7800 items and brought nearly 150 items that appear to be federal, state, and foreign government archival documents from over two dozen web sites and auction catalogs to the attention of NARA, State Department, Homeland Security, and state archives officials. This is not to say that all the items identified have gone missing or are stolen. Many documents that at first appear to be from governmental archival holdings (indeed, the vast majority) turn out to have been legitimately acquired, or are not part of NARA's scope of collections, and are legally being offered for sale by manuscript, autograph, and document dealers and collectors.
Other actions that the National Archives has taken to protect and recover historical records besides the NCH/NARA partnership include: launching the "Recover Lost and Stolen Documents" web page ( http://www.archives.gov/research/recover/), which provides instructions to researchers and the general public on what to do if they suspect an item has been stolen; the site also lists missing records.
NARA has also hosted a meeting of international institutions to discuss issues of document security; placed additional security controls in National Archives research rooms nationwide; published a pamphlet to educate the public about how to identify Federal documents and is giving public recognition to individuals who help the National Archives recover alienated documents.
On December 14, 2005, the Bush Administration issued a new Executive Order on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (see http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2005/12/20051214-4.html).
According to a White House press statement, the order seeks to improve and heighten responsiveness to members of the public who are seeking information through the FOIA. But according to Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists and publisher of the online publication "Secrecy News", the new EO is a "welcomed and unexpected statement" though it "changes little of substance in the processing of requests but does set some new guidelines for agencies that will enable them to do their work more efficiently."
According to Aftergood, the EO's refinements in administrative procedures do not grapple with root FOIA problems inherent at the agency level that hinder the expeditious processing of requests. But the new directive charges agency FOIA processors to "respond courteously and appropriately" to FOIA requesters (no penalties are spelled out, however, should a requester be treated rudely) and agencies are also mandated to create a FOIA Requester Service Center in an effort to streamline and centralize the processing of requests. Also, while many have already done so, agencies must now establish a high level position (Assistant Secretary or higher) titled, "Chief FOIA Officer"; this person being responsible for overseeing an agency's compliance with the law. The elevation of the FOIA officer position in title and status within an agency"s bureaucracy may have the effect of giving greater importance to government openness.
While the impact of the new EO on the filing and processing of FOIA requests is minimal, according to Hill insiders, the changes requested by the Bush White House at the agency level may be an indication that the White House "is feeling some pressure to do something positive on the FOIA front" in light of the pending Cornyn/Leahy FOAI reform bill—a measure that has garnered considerable bi-partisan interest by some members of the Senate. Issuance of the EO is being viewed by government openness watchdogs as a "preemptive strike against real reform"—the White House's most recent effort to derail the reform bill. According to Meredith Fuchs, General Counsel of the National Security Archive, "Up until now this administration has strongly resisted transparency and accountability. We can only hope that this is a sign that it intends to start being more responsive to the public."
On December 6, 2005, Heritage Preservation, a Washington-based nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving our nation's heritage, in partnership with a federal agency—the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) — released a study documenting the condition of America's cultural heritage. The "Heritage Health Index" report suggests that poor environmental controls, inadequate staffing, improper storage, and poor planning for emergencies such as floods threaten many historical collections.
The report includes data compiled from more than 3,000 historical institutions, including historical societies, government archives, museums, libraries, universities, and scientific organizations. The study details the preservation needs of an estimated 4.8 billion items, including books, works of art, scientific specimens, manuscripts, photographs, film, recordings, and digital materials. Of the holdings that were documented, approximately 820 million, or 17%, were determined to be in urgent need of preservation. In addition, the report indicates that one-third of the institutions surveyed acknowledge that they lack adequate knowledge of the condition of their collections; 65% of collecting institutions have experienced damage to collections due to improper storage; 80% of U.S. collecting institutions do not have emergency collections plans with staff trained to carry them out; and a total of 190 million objects are in need of conservation treatment.
While the survey was conducted with anonymity to encourage the widest participation by institutions, the report highlights a few specific cases. For example, Joshua Fox, curator of the Soldiers and Sailors National Military Museum and Memorial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, estimated that it would cost $5,000 to $15,000 to repair each of his institution's battle flags, a sum that the museum cannot afford. He said, "Our organization here struggles just to keep the doors open most of the time, let alone pay for these flags."
The report documents that the greatest threats to historical collections are environmental control hazards, which include inconsistent temperatures and high humidity levels. These can lead to mold, severe drying, and general deterioration. Ultraviolet rays are also a threat, as buildings with poor controls can cause documents and textiles to fade. Pollutants in the air can also cause harmful chemical reactions.
Heritage Preservation hopes that this report will help institutions assess the state of their collections and their needs relative to those of other organizations across the country and to convince government agencies, private foundations, and governing boards of various institutions that they need to direct money not simply toward the acquisition of artifacts for their collections, but toward the preservation of artifacts that they already have.
A 20-page summary of The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America's Collections is available in PDF format at http://www.heritagepreservation.org/HHI/HHIsummary.pdf . For additional information, please visit http://www.heritagepreservation.org/.
The Library of Congress is launching a campaign to create the World Digital Library, an online collection of rare books, manuscripts, posters, and other materials that would be freely available for viewing to Internet users. Because the goal is to bring materials together online from the United State and Europe, the Islamic world, Africa, and Asia, this appears to be the most ambitious effort ever undertaken in the realm of digital access.
According to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, "We are aiming for a cooperative undertaking in which each culture can articulate its own cultural identity within a shared global undertaking." He added that he envisions the initiative as a public-private partnership. Billington stated that already Google Inc. has become the first corporate contributor with a $3 million donation toward the project. The money will be used to develop the details of the project and to pay for global outreach.
The Library of Congress will most likely be working closely with the United States Copyright Office in order to avoid any legal issues. Allan Adler, the vice president for legal and government affairs at the Association of American Publishers noted, "It is unlikely that publishers and authors and creators of other copyrighted works will have much to fear in this kind of project." The LC has assured possible critics that the materials digitized will only be works that are in the public domain and therefore not subject to copyright protection.
In addition to announcing the LC initiative, in a speech delivered to the newly established U.S. Commission for UNESCO, Billington proposed that since the United States has rejoined UNESCO, "The time may be right for our country's delegations to consider introducing to the world body a proposal for the cooperative building of a World Digital Library." In an attempt to disarm possible critics of his proposal Billington argues, "An American partnership in promoting such a project for UNESCO would show how we are helping other people recover distinctive elements of their cultures through a shared enterprise that may also help them discover more about the experience of our own and other free cultures." A Washington Post Op-Ed version of Billington's speech can be viewed at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/21/AR2005112101234.html.
Shortly before leaving on their holiday recess, the Senate and House of Representatives passed the fiscal 2006 spending bill for health, human service and education programs. The conference report the House and Senate approved (Conf. Rept. 109-337) is similar to a version that was rejected by the House the previous month. There are, however, a couple of revisions: spending for health programs for the underprivileged populations is increased by $90 million, and a controversial provision that prohibited expenditure of federal prescription drug funds for erectile dysfunctions was dropped.
In the revised conference report, the House did not make any changes to higher-education programs that were in the earlier bill. The maximum Pell Grant award is set at $4,050, the same level as the previous three years. Of greatest interest to the history community is the provision that sets aside approximately $121 million for the "Teaching American History" initiative, including a new provision that authorizes up to 3% of the total for "national activities."
On December 12, 2005, visitors to the Senate gallery and viewers of C-SPAN 2 learned about the history of filibusters in the United States Senate by witnessing a spirited exchange between Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Senator. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) who sparred on the practices and procedures of the United States Senate.
The senators were discussing the use of the filibuster and its relationship to judicial nominations when Frist remarked that Samuel Alito (President Bush's most recent selection for the Supreme Court) deserves an up-or-down vote. Frist stated, "it has been very tough the last 3 years working through this process, where for 214 years, for judicial nominees coming from the executive branch, coming from the President of the United States, coming here is the tool of a filibuster being used routinely; 10 times, 10 times, in the last 3 years, where for the 214 years before that, rare, rare, rare, rare." Shortly thereafter, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed Frist's line of reasoning stating, "The precedent in the Senate for 214 years prior to the last Congress was the judges who came to the floor got an up-or-down vote."
The frail but stalwart Senator Byrd rose to deliver one of his famous lessons on Senate history and tradition with respect to the filibuster, freedom of speech, and the process the Senate has historically used in considering judicial nominations. "That is not history" he told Frist, "That is not even recent history....Our forefathers did not deign to stoop to a King or a President....this Senate is a forum, probably the only forum that is left in the country where freedom of speech reigns...I see nothing in the Constitution that requires an up-or-down vote on any nominee."
As the debate grew more heated, Byrd blasted Frist and chided his Republican colleagues, ".... I am 88 years old, but I can still fight and fight I will for freedom of speech...I haven't been here for 47 years to see that freedom of speech whittled away and undermined." Byrd then stated, Frist "is wrong when he cites history. History is not on his side...Not all nominees have had up-or-down votes." The West Virginia senator then went on to state that over the years a number of judicial nominees were bottled up in the Judiciary Committee, denying the right to an up-or-down vote. "The Republicans have killed lots of nominees in committees....At least 61 nominees did not get out of committee" he said. Byrd went on to state that the proposed "nuclear" option that many Senators support is unconstitutional, and that Frist's view "flies in the face of history, flies in the face of our forefathers, flies in the face of the Constitution, and the right to freedom of speech."
The debate continued for the better part of an hour. Senator Frist, noting Byrd's intensity of feeling, consistent with his gentlemanly and respectful manner backed off and stated that the discussion concerns "one of the most fundamental responsibilities in this body" and that he was merely seeking to see "a process that is fair, that is dignified, that is respectful and gives people the opportunity to give advice and consent."
It was Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) who signaled the conclusion of the exchange by stating, "I know that many of our colleagues are here at this time, but I certainly hope a number of Americans have been listening to a very important history lesson and a real lesson about the rules and some fundamental issues and rights that have been debated over the last hour in the Senate. . . . I thank my friend from West Virginia . . . I know I speak for all of us, I think pretty generally across both sides of the aisle, in saying there is no individual who is more dedicated to the preservation of this institutions and the magnificent framework in which our Founding Fathers had conceived of it."
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to begin confirmation hearings on the nomination of Samuel Alito to the United States Supreme Court in early 2006. Those interested in reading the entire exchange, can visit the Library of Congress's web page, thomas.loc.gov and tap into the Government Printing Office PDF version of the Congressional Record (Senate) for 12 December 2005; pages S13427–S13436.
—Bruce Craig is director of the National Coalition for History. He can be reached at email@example.com.