From the Political History Today forum in the May 2011 issue of Perspectives on History

Political Resources Waiting to Be Mined

Donald A. Ritchie, May 2011

East Front of the U.S. Capitol. Photo courtesy the Architect of the Capitol.It felt like throwing a party where no one came. Soon after its establishment in 1975, the Senate Historical Office obtained funds to host a conference on the history of the Senate. Invitations to participate went out to the historians who had published the most prominent books in the field—and they all declined. Each scholar had gravitated to a different area of research outside the political arena, concerned perhaps about losing traction in a profession that was rapidly abandoning political history.

Since the funds were still available, the Historical Office redesigned the conference to focus instead on the dramatic growth in size and other problems related to modern senatorial manuscript collections. That program mixed researchers, archivists, and congressional staff, and resulted in a volume entitled Conference on the Research Use and Disposition of Senators' Papers (1978). Participants made clear the scope of the problems facing both those trying to preserve recent political manuscript collections and those trying to use them. In his remarks, William Leuchtenburg provided a long list of significant senators whose papers had been destroyed. Other speakers described libraries and archives that had acquired senators' papers without the funds or staff to process and open them, and collections that were so unmanageable as to defy researchers' efforts to make sense of them.

Two years after that conference, Ronald Reagan's election as president, and the first Republican majority in the Senate in a quarter century, created a seismic shift in Washington. Thirteen senior senators, each with decades of service, lost races for renomination or re-election. Very few of the departing senators had made arrangements for archiving their papers, and yet all had to vacate their offices before the next Congress began. To provide assistance, the Senate historians divided up the list and knocked on doors, to be greeted as morosely as if we were undertakers. At that same time, the outgoing majority leader, Robert C. Byrd, introduced and won passage of a resolution setting the first timetables for opening Senate committee records at the National Archives. Before then, all Senate records had been closed until a researcher requested access, and such requests were considered on a case-by-case basis. Senator Byrd's resolution opened all closed records automatically after 20 years, except for records that pertained to investigations, personal privacy, or national security, which could be sealed for up to 50 years. The House of Representatives later adopted a similar resolution, opening most of its records automatically after 30 years.

In 1982, the Senate employed its first archivist, who began coordinating the transfer of committee records to the National Archives and aided senators in archiving their papers. Some committees had sent records to the Archives regularly, but others had simply stored their noncurrent files in basement rooms and attic lockers around the Senate office buildings. In the 1980s, staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee notified the Historical Office that their file storage room had filled to capacity; and they wondered whether any of the records were worth keeping. The first document pulled randomly off the shelf was a Naval Affairs Committee hearing from 1901 in which Ohio Senator Mark Hanna had participated. Eventually, the committee shipped 700 boxes of records from that storeroom to the Archives. As the transfer of Senate and House records picked up pace, the National Archives responded by creating a Center for Legislative Archives to house these burgeoning committee records (details about the center can be found at archives.gov/legislative). Since 1990, the archived Senate and House records have grown exponentially, doubling in volume every 10 years. New research opportunities have opened continuously. The modern story is captured in An American Political Archives Reader, edited by Karen Dawley Paul, Glenn R. Gray, and L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin (2009).

Although official congressional records went to the National Archives, members' papers are designated as their personal property and have been deposited in countless libraries and historical societies across the country. To assist researchers, Senate and House historians began tracking the location of all past members' manuscript collections and oral histories. First published in book form in 1998, this information was combined with other resources to create the online edition of the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, available at http://bioguide.congress.gov, an authoritative and up-to-date resource on members of Congress since 1789.

When Washington Senator Henry M. Jackson died suddenly in 1983, he had made no provisions for his papers accumulated over 30 years in the Senate and another dozen in the House. The massive collection—1,790 linear feet of records—went to the University of Washington in Seattle, which had also just acquired 1,406.5 feet of records from his colleague, Senator Warren Magnuson, a confluence that the archivists compared to the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Senator Jackson's widow had needed to make speedy and consequential decisions at an emotionally difficult time. She later summed up her experiences in a talk to other Senate spouses called: "Don't Let This Happen to You." Previously, senators had been reluctant to make decisions about their papers, concerned that it might give the erroneous appearance that they were thinking about retiring. Over time, more became receptive to the idea that planning for one's papers was like writing a will, that it would be wise to make the arrangements long before they might be needed.

In some cases, the sheer bulk of a modern congressional collection has required building a new annex—to a campus library, for instance—just to house it. Educational facilities and museums became associated with some of those collections, such as the Dirksen Congressional Center in Illinois. Public policy institutes were also combined with these archives, such as the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. To address their common problems and experiences, these archives have now banded together to create the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress (which has a web site at congresscenters.org).

Individually and combined, these efforts have made congressional archives—both official and personal papers—more readily accessible, and now there is an increasing amount of information available online. The Library of Congress posts recent congressional documents on its Thomas web site at http://thomas.loc.gov. Nineteenth-century records, including the Congressional Globe and the House and Senate Journals are available at the Century of Lawmaking web site of the Library of Congress. Lexis-Nexis is preparing a subscription service to make all published congressional documents word searchable. The Senate Historical Office and the House Office of History and Preservation have also posted extensive reference materials on the Senate and House web sites, at senate.gov and house.gov, respectively.

Over the course of the long recess that political history entered in the 1970s, mountains of manuscripts accumulated, hundreds of oral histories were conducted, and new information about polling, political reporting, and the role of race, gender, and ethnicity in the political process was developed. During the same time, women and racial and ethnic minorities gained more access to the political process, moving into leadership positions and profoundly influencing the legislative process. Still, on many campuses, students can more readily get their political history from Glenn Beck than from their history department. It is time for a new examination of political institutions. In recent years, historians on Capitol Hill have noted a gradual upswing in the number of researchers contacting us—particularly graduate students in the United States and abroad who are working on political history projects. Those entering the field (or returning to it) will find vast resources ready for staking a claim.

Donald Ritchie is the historian of the United States Senate. His many publications include U.S. Congress: A Very Short Introduction (2010) and Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps (2005).