Publication Date

February 1, 1996

Government Will Not Appeal AHA v. Carlin

The government defendants in the litigation American Historical Association v. Carlin decided on December 15 to dismiss their appeal. This case focused on the efforts of the AHA and other plaintiffs, including the Organization of American Historians and the American Library Association, to block the implementation of an agreement made in 1993 between President George Bush and former U.S. archivist Don Wilson. That agreement gave President Bush considerable control over the computer backup tapes that had been at issue in the case of Armstrong v. The Office of the President, also known as the PROFS case. On February 27, 1995, Judge Charles Richey ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that the Bush-Wilson agreement violated the Presidential Records Act. The government appealed the case in May. The appeals court was moving forward on the case and announced in early fall that December 16 was the deadline for filing the government’s brief. As a result of the decision to dismiss the appeal, Judge Richey’s decision will be the final judgment in this case.

Commenting on the government's decision not to appeal the case, the current archivist of the United States, John W. Carlin, stated, "Onbehalf of the National Archives, I strongly support the decision of the solicitor general and I am pleased that this litigation is finally behind us.” During his confirmation hearing in May, Carlin indicated in response to senators’ questions about the Bush-Wilson agreement that he had problems with it. In the week prior to Carlin becoming U.S. archivist, the government decided to appeal Judge Richey’s decision.

IRS Historian Resigns in Protest of Records Policies

On December 8, Shelley Davis, the historian of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), sent Commissioner of Internal Revenue Margaret Richardson a letter of resignation noting the unwillingness of the IRS to deal with serious record-keeping deficiencies. "Our record-keeping policies," she wrote, "do not ensure that information about our policies, actions, procedures, and plans will ever be available to the American public." In 1993 Davis prepared a report stressing that there have been virtually no accessions of permanent IRS records into the National Archives in the 20th century. Lack of response to her report, indications of attempts by IRS records management to destroy significant collections of documents, and the inability to find any internal channels for dealing with records problems led Davis to resign in protest.

National Archives Reviews IRS Records Policies

On December 20 representatives of the National Archives met with managers at the IRS to discuss a 50-page evaluation and report prepared by the National Archives on IRS record-keeping practices. There is no connection between the resignation of IRS historian Shelley Davis and this report—work on the report began many months ago—but the historian's resignation letter and the report both emphasize serious records management problems. The National Archives' report stressed the importance of identifying, scheduling, and transferring to the National Archives records that document the mission and role in our government of the IRS. The report said, "Numerous records that document both policy-making and high-profile programs of the agency either are not scheduled or have not been located and identified." A recent letter from U.S. archivist John Carlin to the head of the IRS requests that the IRS submit within 90 days an action plan indicating how the recommendations in the report will implemented.

At the heart of the IRS records management problems is a long-standing controversy over the interpretation of federal disclosure laws passed in the 1970s. The IRS interprets very broadly its mandate not to disclose information that relates to tax returns and tax-related documents. The National Archives argues that these disclosure restrictions were not intended to bar the National Archives from viewing unscheduled IRS records to determine their permanent and historical value. It appears that the IRS has taken the need to protect the privacy of individual taxpayers to an extreme that has engulfed the agency in secrecy, and allowed no citizen access to the agency's 20th-century administrative and policy files.

State Department Advisory Committee Deals with Declassification and Electronic Records Issues

On December 12 the State Department's Advisory Committee on Historical Diplomatic Documentation held its quarterly meeting to advise the department on matters related to the Foreign Relations series, records management, and declassification. William Slany, the head of the Office of the Historian, reported that there is some slippage in meeting the 30-year target for the publication of the Foreign Relations volumes. While shortage of staff and declassification hurdles have slowed down the preparation of the Johnson-era volumes, these volumes have also taken longer to prepare because they include material that has previously not been available for inclusion. The Johnson volumes will be the first to include documents from the President's Foreign Policy Advisory Board, an independent presidential body administered through the National Security Council. The legislation passed in 1992 dealing with the Foreign Relations series has increased cooperation from the National Security Council and other agencies and has resulted in a wider body of material, including more intelligence material, being included in the volumes, which seek to provide comprehensive documentation of American foreign policy activities.

The advisory committee also discussed the fact that the State Department central file—which includes the telegrams between Washington and the embassies—for the period from July 1, 1973, to the present has been digitized. In 1998 the State Department expects to transfer the 1973 computerized central file to the National Archives. This will mark the first time the National Archives will have received such a large collection of textual records in electronic format from an agency. The advisory committee members raised the issue of whether the software that the State Department currently uses for accessing this material will also be transferred along with the data tapes. At the meeting representatives from the National Archives stated that they are currently exploring strategies for handling electronic records, but indications were that there had been no agreement on the transfer of the software. An advisory committee member stressed that systems used to manage records were part of the records. Executive Order 12958, signed by the president last April, requires—following a grace period of five years—that all but the most sensitive agency records over 25 years old be open and available for research. Because 1973 records will be 25 years old in 1998, the State Department is making plans for opening this material. Yet once the State Department transfers the digitized tapes to the National Archives, the question remains as to how researchers will gain access to the central files, which have always been a key source of information for scholars.

Government Printing Office Expands Free Online Service

On December 1 the U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO) began free a line access to the Congressional Records, Federal Register, congressional bills, and other important government documents. Prior to December 1, GPO Access service, which was created by legislation in 1993, was available only to users on site in some 600 of the nearly 1,400 federal depository libraries.

GPO Access service can be reached via the Internet or by dialing in through a modem. Internet users can access the databases with a World Wide Web browser through the Superintendent of Documents' home page at https://www.cess.gpo.gov /su_docs/. Internet us can also telnet to swais.access.gpo.gov, then log in as guest. Dial-in users should use a modem to call (202) 512-1661; type swais and then log in as guest. In more than 20 states, users with modems can connect to GPO Access through depository library “gateways” with a local phone call. Listings of depository libraries and “gateways”can be found on the Superintendent of Documents’ home page. For information on accessing GPO Access, send an e-mail message to help@eids05.eids.gpo.gov.

Library of Congress Dismantles Exhibit on Slavery

On December 18 the library of Congress dismantled Back of the Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation following criticism by some employees who felt the exhibit was offensive. The exhibit, which used the library’s photographs and documents to depict plantation slave life, was on view earlier this year at five universities and historic houses with no criticism voiced. Outside consultants, including two black scholars, were involved in the development of the exhibit. However, less than three hours after installation of the exhibit, Librarian of Congress James Billington had it taken down. He noted that the exhibit was located in a hallway of the sixth floor a Madison Building and that its primary audience would have been employees. During the first week of December, the library decided to postpone a planned exhibition on Sigmund Freud. Many believe the protests of those who say Freud’s theories have been discredited were a key factor in the decision.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.