Tuesday, June 12, 2007

To Secretary of the U.S. Senate, Nancy Erickson who had the staff of the Historical Office send me a gratis copy of the newly issued Volume XIX of the Executive Sessions of The Senate Foreign Relations Committee -1967. An important year, and the volume reflects closed session discussions and testimony on such topics as the Glassboro summit, strategic arms control, the Six Day War and Johnson administration policy in Vietnam.

Primary sources like this along with FRUS are the bread and butter of American diplomatic history.

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Ironically, you write “Primary sources like this along with FRUS are the bread and butter of American diplomatic history” on the very day that I signed off from H-Net’s H-Diplo List. I’ve posted there off and on about the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for six years now, using my past experiences as a federal archivist to comment on the challenges of releasing Richard Nixon’s tapes and other records. As you know, I once worked for 14 years as a NARA employee, screening Nixon’s tapes to see what could be released to the public. My late twin sister also once worked as a senior archivist at NARA, in another unit, its declassification division. Her specialty was declassifying State Department records. Many NARA archivists have graduate degrees in history, as I’ve mentioned in a number of forums.

I left H-Diplo yesterday because my posts rarely triggered any responses. Although I was one of the few people posting there with a government rather than an academic background, there seemed no point in my continuing to post there. I couldn’t trigger the dialogue that would have made it worthwhile. Occasionally, someone might respond to one of my posts by asking if they could access online what NARA had announced for release. But that was pretty well it, as far as responses went. More so than with any other executive branch agency, historians’ interest in NARA does not seem to go beyond what the agency says in its press releases.

But apply balancing tests, coordinating disclosure and releasing information can be challenging, at NARA and at other agencies. Occasionally, conflicts erupt and trigger a news story. You may recall the article by Tim Weiner in the New York Times in April 9, 1998 about strongly worded protests in a State Department historians’ advisory committee report on the FRUS series.

Clearly, releasing government records is a complex process with many competing dynamics to juggle. But in every forum I've looked at (H-net, History News Network, historians’ blogs), scholars tend to come across as very passive on archival issues. You once suggested that they don’t have time to educate themselves about laws, regulations, archival processes. That may be part of the problem but there must be more to it than that. It’s easy enough to read news stories in the major newspapers and to gain some sense of the issues. Or simply to stop and think about basic human psychology (“if these were records of my decades long career, what might happen if outsiders asked for access to them in order to study and analyze my decisions and actions?”). Although I don’t know all the reasons for the passivity or indifference in the historical community, I now accept that it is nearly universal. I’ve come to understand that NARA has users but no real constituency willing to advocate knowledgeably on its behalf.
"More so than with any other executive branch agency, historians’ interest in NARA does not seem to go beyond what the agency says in its press releases."

That is a stinging indictment of the historical profession Maarja, and as we peruse many of the same sites, one that I must concede is largely true.

Most of the concern that was ever raised about NARA (other than in your posts) was strictly partisan ( concern over Bush appointing Weinstein) and had no deeper or sustained interest in NARA's actual functions.
Yes, the discussion of Dr. Weinstein's nomination on HNN and elsewhere was very disappointing to me. As you recall, I never saw that as a right - left issue. There are many excrciatingly difficult records issues that NARA has to handle. To paint them, simplistically, as partisan is not helpful to the agency.

As to the indifference of historians, Eduard Mark, Air Force historian, was much more stinging than I in a post on H-Diplo on November 1, 2005, which he concluded by writing:

"I must note in conclusion that one of the most serious obstacles to a
redress of the national crisis of record-keeping resides in the yawning indifference of historians to it. I have agitated this issue for some years, finding that with only the rarest exceptions historians are so narcissisticly engaged in their own research that they care not a whit for their professional descendants. The issue of declassification arouses
them, predictabibly, but the usual attitude toward the problem of
record-keeping is, 'I've got mine. After all, the Eisenhower
Administration kept good records.' Even organizations that style
themselves champions of declassification, and which, like so-many bloodhounds, will pursue records under the FOIA to prove that [t]he United States was beastly to their favorite third-world dictators, have
remained resolutely indifferent to the crisis of record-keeping."

With the exception of comments by Dr. Mark, and by John Earl Haynes (most notably in his excellent reply post to me of April 19, 2003), I found the H-Diplo response on records issues most disappointing. Even this week, looking on the web version (since I no longer get the emails), I see many speculative comments about recent events, but little interest in whether there is any supporting documentation that might prove or disprove the theories put forth. Go figure!
A few more thoughts at day's end, if I may.

No matter what field of history interests you, diplomatic or whatever, one would think articles such as this one from 1997


and this one from 2003


would trigger a lot of discussion. But I’ve seen hardly any on blogs or other electronic forums. Yet in any office, in the private or public sector, one is bound to run into examples of how electronic record keeping has changed how people deal with data. So these aren’t exactly exotic, remote issues, left for NARA to deal with in isolation. Most people are exposed to them every day.

Think of all the hard copy directories, manuals, guidance documents, newsletters, etc. that anyone examining an institution’s history once used to turn to when doing research in the pre-computer age. How many of them now are issued only electronically, as dynamic, frequently updated and overwritten content? How much of that has been preserved over the last ten years? And if it has, can you readily track the different iterations? What about metadata capture? What about migration and emulation of one’s own research notes,? Even if they don’t want to get involved with the very tricky – and admittedly often scary -- governmental issues, academics can work with their institutions' records management and IT staff to ensure that an historian’s very valuable perspective is brought to bear.

Eduard Mark attributes the silence among historians on such issues to “not caring.” I put a slightly different spin on it. I attribute it to lacking a sense of stewardship. Or not having a strong sense of community. Some of us Feds probably are more attuned to stewardship than people outside the government. For whatever reason, I certainly give a lot of thought, often, to those who preceded me in government service and those who will follow.
I've never had any contact with Dr. Mark, though I enjoy his posts, Haynes and Klehr I've communicated with several times, have their work on my shelf. Their understanding of archival issues are heightened, I would hazard to guess, by being outside the mainstream of the historical profession by employer, politics or research interests ( or all three).

"Eduard Mark attributes the silence among historians on such issues to “not caring.”

Hey ! Occam's Razor !

"...I put a slightly different spin on it. I attribute it to lacking a sense of stewardship. Or not having a strong sense of community""

Re; "community" and professional academics

My mentor as a historian was a crusty, working class, Social-Democrat/ strongly pro-labor union/anti-Soviet type who (at the time) was probably around 70 and about to retire and said of his peers:

"There'a a lot of people working at this university who'd put ppl into concentration camps if they could".

I've seen nothing to belie his opinion in the intervening years
Eh, I don't know whether I'll ever get a good handle on why the silence exists. I refer to the silence as indifference but some of it might be due to ignorance or simple reluctance to speak out. Or an innocuous failure to stop and connect some of the dots. Other than what you once told me, the best I ever got from HNN on the subject was someone mumbling that he had so much on his plate, he just couldn't think about archival issues.

Such things are difficult to discuss. (Loved the quote from your mentor, BTW.) I find a curious lack of introspection among many historians. It's a problem in many professions. The review of the Toffler book about Arthur Andersen that I mentioned under your posting about creativity contains the following observation about professionals in that other field:

"It seems to me that, if a professional cohort . . . is assumed by its members a priori to be synonymous with the ethical, then any attempt to make ethics an explicit presence in the training of the profession is either redundant, telling them what they all know and do already, or else it is covertly critical, implying that the profession’s current presumptions and practices are somehow at variance with what they profess and how they perceive themselves. [They] may thus have a grand conviction of their individual and collective ethical integrity that requires neither articulation nor defense."

I sometimes pick up on some of that "why would you question me" vibe in some historians' blogs as well (haven't noticed that as a problem in yours, however).

Although I'll never resolve the question of what causes the silence on records issues, if nothing else, web forums provide an interesting record of how different historians (you and I among them) choose to spend their professional capital. I'm sure someone will get around to studying that some time in the future.
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