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From the Noteworthy column in the September 1999 Perspectives

The National Archives: Issues for Historians

John W. Carlin, September 1999

Editor's Note: This article, and the one by William J. Maher, have been adapted and updated from speeches delivered at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C., on January 9, 1999.

Last year we had an exceptional event at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Approximately 400 persons, many of them from other nations, participated in a symposium on the use of our records in what the press calls the search for "Nazi Gold"—the current international effort to trace gold, artwork, and other assets looted by the Nazis from victims of the Holocaust.

During the past three years, our staff has worked every day with researchers using our extensive holdings of archival records containing Holocaust-era information. And we've made that research even easier by publishing a major finding aid to relevant records.

In all these ways, the U.S. National Archives is supporting and encouraging the critical work that Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat has appropriately termed "turning history into justice."

For those of us who care about both justice and history, this is gratifying. But there's a problem. Can we keep it up? Can we serve all the Holocaust-asset researchers and also satisfactorily meet the needs of those of you who are working on other subjects?

Your president, Joseph Miller, came to my office last fall. He explained that historians need NARA to increase the services we provide to researchers and reduce the time they have to wait for them. And he's right. We are not meeting your needs well enough. But how to do it?

JFK Assassination Records

Last fall, the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Review Board went out of business. But the work it was doing goes on for us at the National Archives. We are now solely responsible for the JFK Assassination Records Collection, some 2,000 cubic feet of such records—4.5 million pages. The collection contains everything assembled by the board that might shed light on the assassination and help resolve the controversies over whether Lee Harvey Oswald alone was responsible.

The board and its staff did an enormous amount of difficult and valuable work, to which NARA contributed in several ways. We searched our own collections for pertinent material. We accepted records that other agencies provided. We began developing the database through which you can now locate particular items in the collection. And our staff kept—and continues to keep—a lookout for materials appropriate for the collection. For example, one of our archivists was examining some records that seemingly had no relation to the assassination when she discovered the report of a postal inspectors' investigation into the sale of a rifle through the mail to Lee Harvey Oswald. Another staff member located records on what happened to the casket in which President Kennedy's body was initially transported.

More discoveries will doubtless come. And organized searching continues at the FBI and CIA. They have memoranda of understanding with the board giving them until September 1999 to complete their contributions to the collection. And NARA staff remain at work on processing the collection for use by historians and everyone else who is interested.

Is this important? Obviously. Were we given additional resources to do it? No, no more than we were for the Holocaust-asset research. Can we do it and also meet the other needs that Professor Miller described? Can we improve the service we try to provide you for research on so many other important subjects? Somehow we must.

The Nixon Tapes

Last summer, archivists on our staff began cutting apart the original White House tape recordings made by former president Nixon. We did that under court order. The Presidential Recordings and Material Preservation Act, which the Supreme Court upheld as constitutional in 1977, requires that the National Archives review these tapes, identify and return "private or personal" conversations, retain the rest, and open to the public material such as conversations related to "abuse of governmental power."

In the continuing process of review, we have so far identified approximately 820 hours of recorded conversations that must be returned, which is less than one-quarter, 22 percent, of the 3,700-hour total. And despite the delicacy of the process, taped conversations that the law allows to be kept by the government will not be lost or harmed because the archives can and is retaining them on preservation copies, usable with today's technology. Under a court-mediated agreement that I reached with the Nixon estate, the National Archives will continue to release, in stages, recorded material that the law allows to be made public. And I am still hopeful that the Nixon estate itself might preserve and someday make public at least some of the private conversations. As archivist of the United States, I have asked the Nixon estate in a formal letter to accept the return of the entire master preservation copy so that the estate can preserve one intact copy of the private or personal information.

Nonetheless, the ongoing work of cutting the tapes will take from three to six years of work by several staff members. And preparing unrestricted portions for public release is time-consuming as well. We expect to open another 445 hours of taped conversations later this year. But getting the rest of the job done requires a lot of resources. Yet if we don't do it, valuable historical research cannot go forward, just as it cannot if I don't find ways to improve our service to researchers on many other historical subjects. Professor Miller did not tell me to help historians just in certain fields at the expense of others.

Preserving Electronic Records

Nonetheless, at the same time that we are dealing with the Nixon tapes, the JFK Assassination Collection, and the Holocaust-asset search, something else of concern to you is concerning us. We are working with the State Department on accessioning and preserving certain kinds of files of value in diplomatic history. These are electronic, not paper, cable files. And our groundbreaking effort to preserve them is a challenge because we are dealing with extremely large numbers of small electronic files.

Over the past quarter-century, the National Archives has taken in approximately 90,000 files of electronic records. But we estimate that agencies like the departments of State and Treasury are individually generating—annually, just in e-mail—10 times that many files of electronic records that we are likely to need to preserve. Given current technology, it could take us years to copy electronic records we may get from the Clinton White House to the best preservation medium we now have for such records, and we might not finish before it is time to start recopying.

Electronic records pose an unprecedented challenge to archivists and records managers because both the quantity and the kinds of such records are mushrooming. Moreover, they can be easily erased; they degenerate relatively quickly; and they can be rendered unreadable by the obsolescence of the hardware and software on which they were created. To deal with such recordkeeping issues, NARA must balance competing concerns. Users are eager for electronic access to electronic records now. Agencies are concerned about where the money and technologies will come from to meet that need. And we all fear the possible loss of electronic records in the meantime. Nonetheless, we can't lose a whole era of history just because its records are in electronic formats. And we're working aggressively at NARA to see that we don't. Indeed, through our partnership with the San Diego Supercomputer Center, we may have in sight a workable way to archive electronic records in a comprehensive system providing both preservation and access for all data types without dependence on particular software or hardware. But can we carry on and implement such research and development, and still provide the kinds of services that all of you need now?

Competing Demands and New Appropriations

By this time I hope I've made my point. There are huge, competing demands for our services just within areas of particular importance to you. I've said nothing about the needs of federal agencies themselves for better guidance from us on records management. I've said nothing about the thousands of requests we get from veterans who need military service records from us to document their entitlement to benefits. And I've said nothing of the needs of genealogists, journalists, lawyers, courts, legislators, environmentalists, business people, film and video producers, and scholars of other kinds besides historians. All of them need better help from the National Archives, just as you do.

Nonetheless, in some very important ways, you are going to get better help from the National Archives.

In our strategic plan, and in testimony I've given to congressional committees, I have said that NARA would reorganize to break bottlenecks, end duplicative effort, and streamline our activities, all of which we are doing. But I also said that if the economies we achieved did not yield sufficient funds to enable us to carry out our mission and serve researchers well, I would not hesitate to ask for more. And last year I did ask. I spent a lot of time talking to the White House, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Congress about NARA's value and the needs of its customers. I spent a lot of time talking about the nation's history. And they've responded with what is a major multimillion dollar budget breakthrough. The increase is a significant first step, not in any way a total solution to our fiscal shortages. But it's big enough to finance some real progress.

The increased appropriations will enable us to take more steps toward preserving electronic records and improving government records management, so that material of historical value does ultimately make it into the archives. The appropriations will help us develop our program for making our records-storage services to agencies entirely reimbursable, which if successful could give us additional budget relief. The appropriations will help us begin to meet some too-long-deferred facilities needs, so that the records will have better space for preservation and you will have better quarters for research.

Additionally, we're getting a half-million dollars more for competitive grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. That means a larger pool is available for grants in support of historical editors, who are producing scholarly editions of papers documenting outstanding national leaders from Thomas Jefferson to Jane Addams and Martin Luther King Jr., and historical developments such as the Spanish colonization of the Southwest and the emancipation of the slaves.

Finally, the new appropriations will enable us to build on the work we've already been doing to expand access to records for you and the general public.

Expanding Access

Last year we successfully opened the George Bush Presidential Library. This is our 10th presidential library, and though we have a lot of work yet to do there, its opening means that much new material is becoming available for studies of the Bush presidency and developments throughout George Bush's long public life.

We've also made significant progress in opening many other kinds of documents to researchers. In fiscal years 1996 and 1997, the first two years in which President Clinton's declassification executive order went into effect, NARA declassified more pages of records than any other federal agency—227 million. That was more than half of the total pages declassified throughout the federal government. And in fiscal year 1998, NARA reviewed and released 92 million more pages of previously classified material.

Again, there is much more classified material for us to process. And the Congress has passed legislation that requires closer attention to classified materials containing information on atomic energy. Historians opposed this legislation, and so did I, because it seemed likely to slow declassification progress, as is in fact happening. NARA must observe statutory obligations, which we cannot and do not want to escape, to protect legitimate interests of individual privacy and national security. But in the past three years, NARA itself has declassified 319 million pages of material.

I mentioned the Nixon tapes. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson also recorded conversations that we have been releasing. Last year the Kennedy Library in our presidential library system made the largest release of Kennedy recordings so far. They include conversations he had with presidents Hoover, Eisenhower, and Truman. They deal with the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. space program, and events in Vietnam. All of this is now available to historians.

In addition to opening vast quantities of material of use to historians, we have made significant progress in making it easier for you to locate material you need.

In our Electronic Access Project, we are building an Internet-accessible catalog of NARA's holdings nationwide. Already, if you have computer access to the Internet from your home, office, or library, you can call up more than 390,000 descriptions of records in our custody. You can search for material of use in research on such topics as the Civil War, fugitive slaves, conservation history, and women at work. Please see for yourselves what we've made available at http://www.nara.gov. You can call up not only records descriptions but also more than 123,000 digital images. These range from Mathew Brady photographs to Albert Einstein letters, from Civil War maps to Vietnam documents. Additionally we're creating an automated microfilm database that will make access easier to some of our most heavily used records.

In other ways as well, we are continually expanding the usefulness of our web site to you and other NARA users with all kinds of information about NARA activities and opportunities. We post material from special projects, regulations, and records schedules, about which we request public comment. And through our web site you can reach the NARA Archival Information Locator and the JFK Assassination Records Collection Database I described. You and your students can tour online our electronic Exhibit Hall of historical documents, and those of you who could not see National Archives exhibits in Washington, such as our shows of World War II posters and art supported by the New Deal, can see them on your computer screen. Also you can use our Digital Classroom, which offers primary sources, activities, and training for educators and students. The Digital Classroom includes topics such as the history of the Constitution, and of the Amistad case. I urge you to take advantage of all the kinds of help for historical study that we now offer online.

We've made achievements as well in preserving certain endangered records of historical value. For example, we bought equipment to increase our in-house preservation capacity. We contracted for outside help in duplicating or reformatting hundreds of videotapes, sound tracks, aerial photos, and audio belts and disks threatened by obsolescence and/or deterioration. These are major steps in preventing the loss of valuable resources in our holdings. To historians this means preventing the loss of images and voice recordings from the Depression, the New Deal, World War II, and the Cold War.

Military personnel service records from the 20th century also will be available to future historians through my recent decision to retain permanently in the National Archives millions of such records currently in the legal custody of the Department of Defense. Now we must plan to house these records in archival space with environmental controls necessary for their long-term preservation. I am also looking for new quarters, in the Atlanta area, for our Southwest Regional Archives in order to provide space that is better for the records and more accommodating to researchers. And we have drafted standards for the storage of archival records that we will apply to ensure that all of our historically valuable records are preserved in appropriate space.

Well, by now I can almost hear what's going through the mind of Professor Miller, who, as I said, met with me last fall. He might say, "Okay, John, you sound like you really are helping historians. You are well on your way to giving us lots of research aids and digitized records and teaching resources via the Internet. You have opened lots of new material from the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Bush presidential eras, and you are even trying to persuade the Nixon estate to save tapes that the courts won't let you keep. You're providing special help with the Holocaust-assets search, and you're developing ways to save such electronic records as important State Department cables. You've declassified mountains of material. And the president and the Congress are now helping you with a big budget increase. But what about the original question that I talked to you about in your office? Are historians going to get records faster in your reference rooms?" I'm happy to reply that the answer is "yes."

Creating a User-Friendly Archives

As researchers, you have grounds to feel frustrated. I know because I've read the report my staff produced last year on difficulties our customers encounter in our research facilities. We don't have enough people helping researchers. The people we do have sometimes aren't knowledgeable enough. Our rules can be confusing. And by phone, mail, or in the research rooms, we don't provide what researchers want fast enough.

My staff has produced 90 recommendations for improvements we can make. At the top of the list is the establishment of customer service centers equipped to provide more effective and efficient help to researchers. We also have plans for increasing archival assistance and equipment in textual research rooms, increasing opportunities for on-site electronic access by researchers, improving our systems for pulling records and refiling them, improving the consistency and clarity of our rules for handling records, and streamlining procedures for the self-service copying of certain kinds of records. We have begun instituting changes this year. You will not see rapid, dramatic improvements. But things will improve.

They will improve, and they must. Our problems at times seem overwhelming. The prospect of dealing with ever-mounting quantities of electronic records seems even more overwhelming. As I said last year to members of Congress, "When the record of our country is at stake, being overwhelmed is not a choice."

Records matter in people's lives. Records matter in the life of a nation. Consider Iraq, which tried to assimilate Kuwait by destroying its records as well as its borders. Consider Kosovo, where the deliberate destruction of public records has been part of "ethnic cleansing." Records document the identities, rights, and entitlements of citizens. They document the actions for which officials are accountable. And they document historical experience and memory.

Therefore, I repeat, when the record of our country is at stake, being overwhelmed is not a choice. No one will understand that better than you, on whom the rest of us depend for historical understanding. And with your understanding, your support, your help, I am going to keep working to secure the funds we need, improve the services you need, and prevent the challenges from overwhelming this essential institution, the National Archives and Records Administration, which historians struggled so hard to get established in the first place. I look forward to working with you now in the effort to solve the new problems that confront effective recordkeeping. We can do it, and we will. There really is no choice.

—John W. Carlin is archivist of the United States.