Why We Need the National Archives More Than Ever
Editor's Note: This edition of Townhouse Notes is guest written by Seth Denbo. Allison Miller will be back next month.
Presidential records have burst into the news repeatedly in recent years. In 2018, Politico reported a story about federal records management staff at the White House spending their time reassembling letters, memos, and other documents that the president had ripped up after he was finished with them. This low-tech process involves long hours of work, piles of torn-up papers, and many rolls of tape. The staff even had to reassemble a torn-up letter from Senator Chuck Schumer so it could be sent to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for archiving.
The federal government’s records woes go beyond the current administration’s practices or even presidential records. The massive backlog of Freedom of Information Act requests across many agencies highlights the scale of the problem. And presidential libraries too have raised concerns. When the Obama Foundation announced that the Obama Presidential Center to be built in Chicago would not include a library to house presidential records, some historians grew concerned that historical research would be hampered without a central facility run by knowledgeable archivists.
Over the past few years, I’ve staffed the AHA’s Research Division (which has responsibility for issues related to archives), been involved in setting up our new NARA advisory committee, and attended meetings on behalf of the AHA at the State Department and NARA. In talking to those involved in the complex and vital work of archiving presidential and other federal government records, I’ve learned about issues they face and, most importantly, how deeply committed many of them are to the work of records management. Without NARA and its skilled professional staff, access to the sources that historians require would be impossible. But the scale of NARA’s work is vast. The digital age brings not only new challenges in terms of how records are created, preserved, and discovered, but also an explosion in the number of records created by federal agencies. To give just one illustrative example, the Obama presidential records alone include over 300 million emails.
Much of what it comes down to, as with most things, is money. NARA’s budget has not kept pace with the demands that modern records management puts on the agency. In 2019, NARA’s slice of the federal budget was $373 million, not even a drop in the proverbial bucket for an agency whose 3,000 employees deal with the records of the entire federal government. But while the budget process for 2020 is not yet complete, this number will likely decrease (currently the budget passed by the House cuts $20 million, while the Senate’s cuts $10 million). This is the wrong direction.
As historians—whether or not our research takes us to a presidential library or other NARA reading room to do research—we understand the importance of records. This is why the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, along with several other groups, brought a lawsuit in May 2019 against the White House regarding “their failure to create and preserve records of the meetings and discussions the President and other senior White House staff have with foreign leaders” that led a federal judge to order the White House to preserve a range of types of communications. Ultimately, NARA will assume responsibility for these materials.
NARA does vital work under increasingly difficult circumstances. Congress needs to know that we value that work, or it will never provide the necessary funds to ensure that NARA can fulfill its legal responsibilities as the “nation’s record keeper.” Good history and good government both depend upon good record keeping.
Seth Denbo is director of scholarly communication and digital initiatives at the AHA. He tweets @seth_denbo.
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.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.