Publication Date

September 1, 1989

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

I am writing to address the American Historical Association’s recent loss of half its representation on the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. This came after a period during which both AHA and OAH representatives had been working to increase the visibility of the NHPRC’s publications and records programs among history’s academic branch and foster greater support of NHPRC programs—e.g. by encouraging college and university teachers to aid in disseminating NHPRC-sponsored documentary editions and to use them in their teaching.

The NHPRC was reorganized as a consequence of efforts to add delegates to the Commission from the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA) and the Association of Documentary Editors (ADE). The Commission’s membership, before the reorganization, consisted of seventeen members: the Archivist of the United States, two Presidential appointees, and one each from the Library of Congress, the State Department, the Defense Department, the Senate, the House, and the Supreme Court. Four professional associations sent two delegates: the AHA, the OAH, the Society of American Archivists, and the American Association for State and Local History. These four will now retain one representative each while NAGARA and ADE will add one each, resulting in a net decrease in the Commission size from seventeen to fifteen.

NAGARA, in particular, has felt at times that the Commission has been insensitive to its needs or that it lacked a conduit to the Commission. In seeking a place on the NHPRC, NAGARA apparently did not intend that anyone else’s representation to be cut. But cost-conscious Congressional representatives would not agree to a flat increase in Commission size, especially since the NHPRC was simultaneously seeking a long sought, deserved, and necessary authorization for increased funding over the next five years. A reduction in representation from the AHA (and other original constituent associations) became the price that NAGARA and its allies were willing to pay. The authorization was secured. It will be later this year before we know if the appropriation will be increased.

While the addition of representatives was discussed at an NHPRC meeting, the proposed reduction was not. Of course the size of the Commission is determined by Congress, but does it not make sense that those with accumulated decades of experience on the body should participate in the discussion of this change and have their voices heard? Commission members never had the chance to discuss this momentous change. We delegates were presented with a fait accompli. Some of us felt snookered.

I maintain that the change in representation is bad for the Commission and for the historical and archival communities at large. NAGARA and ADE are highly specific professional associations, with memberships of 400 or less. The AHA, with some 13,000 individual members, includes government archivists and documentary editors as well as college teachers, other public historians, secondary school teachers, museum workers, as well as many others. Recognizing the inclusiveness and variety of the Association’s membership, Professor Carol Bleser and myself, the AHA’s two delegates, have made every effort to speak for as general a historical interest as possible. On the other hand, both NAGARA and ADE, more than any of the other represented associations, represent vested interests. They routinely ask for and receive funds from NHPRC. It may be objected that members of the AHA and other organizations also receive funds from the Commission and that the AHA itself has submitted successful proposals, but NAGARA and ADE are far more dependent on Commission funds and have a special relationship with the NHPRC that is not at all paralleled by the huge and diverse AHA. I wonder if these new members of the NHPRC will be capable of rising above the particular special interests which they represent.

The change in the NHPRC composition has unfortunate implications for all historians. It was done without adequate discussion by the Commission or by the historical community generally, and was promoted by those who stood to benefit immediately from the change. I urge the AHA to start working now to try to reverse it.

Ronald Formisano
Professor of History
Clark University