Publication Date

February 1, 1990

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor

The opening paragraphs of Ronald Formisano’s letter in the September 1989 Perspectives raise questions about the legislative process that restructured the National Historic Publications and Records Commission. Who among us would not be disconcerted by the unceremonious removal of the chair in which he or she sat? Nevertheless, the immediate result seems less dire than Professor Formisano’s letter suggests, while other wider concerns may be understated.

Sound policy requires precise analysis, and Professor Formisano’s characterization of the Association for Documentary Editing as a “vested interest” misrepresents the scholars who comprise its membership in two ways: First, the organization is genuinely interdisciplinary; its members engage in an intellectual colloquy among scholarly editors who identify with disciplines such as literature, the fine arts, and philosophy as well as history. If there are ADE members inclined to press for narrowly defined “professional” interests they must be disappointed with the organization’s breadth of vision. In adventures across disciplinary lines in this era of deconstruction and “the New Literary History,” historians in the ADE have learned and taught a great deal, but anyone who witnessed the centripetal independence of scholarly editors debating the aims and contents of what eventually emerged as A Guide to Documentary Editing (Baltimore, 1987), by May-Jo Kline, knows that the ADE excels at academic discussion (if not anarchic disputation) rather than self-serving conspiracy in the committee rooms of Congress.

The ADE joins the OAH and AHA among nearly fifty members of the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History, which regularly reports on NHPRC legislation and funding in the pages of Perspectives. Many historians in the ADE are absolutely independent of the NHPRC as a source of support, and it is from their number that the ADE Council wisely selected its representative to the NHPRC.

At our best, women and men participating in serious historical scholarship bring to the discussion of public and professional affairs the breadth of vision that elevates our liberating art above mere technical proficiency. It would be unfortunate if Professor Formisano’s letter, by portraying recent developments at the NHPRC as a confrontation in which scholarly interests and the public good fell victim to narrowly defined professional agendas, obscured the legitimate concern that we all share for effective representation of our broadly-based historical understandings in this increasingly splintered world of technicians.

Jon Kukla
Richmond, Virginia

As president of the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA), I would like to respond to Ronald Formisano’s letter in the September 1989 Perspectives on NHPRC representation.

NAGARA was founded as an organization of state archives and records management programs, though it now includes strong representation from the local and federal government sectors. It is concerned with government archives and records management issues, and with the preservation and use of this nation’s documentary heritage.

Because of the importance of government archival issues, it is not difficult at all to see why Congress added NAGARA to the Commission. I want to emphasize that there was none of the maneuvering that Professor Formisano’s letter suggests. NAGARA openly petitioned the Commission to join its membership and later, when contacted by the Congressional oversight committee considering NHPRC legislation, we advanced arguments for our joining. We did not push, petition, or lobby. We certainly never asked for representation at the expense of the AHA or anyone else. Congress added NAGARA to the Commission’s membership because of the importance of governmental archival issues with which the Commission must deal, and because of our expertise and leadership in the field.

NAGARA does not represent merely its own professional interests, as the letter implies; rather, it represents government archival interests and concerns, broadly defined. Our representative, Dr. William S. Price, Jr., Director of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History, is widely known and respected by people in the archives and history fields. He has joined NHPRC’s Publications Committee, not its Records Committee, further evidencing his, and our, broad interests.

NAGARA is proud to be a member of the NHPRC. We believe our membership will strengthen and improve its work. We intend to work, as we have in the past, for expansion of its appropriations.

NAGARA has worked with the AHA and other historical organizations on key archival issues, e.g., independence for the National Archives and appointment of a well-qualified Archivist of the United States. We are a member of the NCC, headquartered at the AHA’s offices. Professor Formisano is mistaken in his assertion that NAGARA’s joining the NHPRC has unfortunate implications for historians. Quite the opposite is the case. We now have one more forum for working together to improve historical records management in this nation. We hope the AHA and its members share our perspective.

John F. Burns
The National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators