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ARCHIVES Home

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ARCHIVES  August 2006, Week 2

ARCHIVES August 2006, Week 2

Subject:

Re: Call to action: Comment on proposed reduction in NARA reading room hours

From:

[log in to unmask]

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Sat, 12 Aug 2006 12:50:17 EDT

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (121 lines)

In a message dated 8/11/2006 8:01:39 PM Eastern Standard Time, 
[log in to unmask] writes:

"In many ways, the issue at hand is a symptom of a larger problem: the lack 
of support for the National Archives.  At the Joint SAA, NAGARA, COSA 
meeting, Archivist Weinstein commented "How many archivists does it take to 
change a policy?  All of them." 

Richard, you make an excellent point when you say this is part of a larger 
issue.  I've long thought about how to explain to people that these issues 
matter.  I have to confess that I find it harder to do this now than back in the 
late 1970s, the environment has changed.
 
I've written here in the past about how historians need to do more to support 
NARA.  Unfortunately, I've seen little discussion of NARA in public forums 
such as H-Net.  As usual, I'm the only one posting on H-Diplo who has mentioned 
the budget crisis and the cutback in research room hours.  On the History News 
Network, the academic historians who blog there are much more inclined to 
post about allegations about the Duke lacrosse team than about the nation's 
record keeper.   Go figure.  
 
I can understand why an ordinary citizen who never uses records might not be 
interested in NARA.  NARA has a very small constituency of knowledge-seekers.  
There are plenty of people out there outside the records and archival 
communities who are comfortable with leaving the running of Federal agencies up to 
"Washington."  It can be hard to get through to them with arguments for a robust 
budget for NARA, access to government records may be a very remote issue for 
them.  A few of them might even view attempts to access government records and 
to study them independently outside the filter provided by a public affairs 
official as a threat to established order.  
 
I understand that the public holds varying views of the value of records, 
ranging from indifference to fear to active interest.  If any of you on the List 
had to address your neighbors at a community center, assuming they are a 
relatively diverse rather than monolithic group, economically, professionally, and 
politically, how would you pitch an appeal on behalf of NARA?  Or more 
broadly, persuade them that history matters?  Anyone who advocates for support of 
NARA, as I believe is worth doing, needs to consider the fact that there are an 
awful lot of people out there who don't care about access to records or the 
broadening of public knowledge about government activities.  An argument based on 
access to "the essential evidence of government" is unlikely to resonate with 
them, although one pitched to genealogists might have some effect.  Our 
recent discussion about the value of history showed that even in the archives and 
records communities, there are people who never read history and don't follow 
the news closely.   
 
Even among very well-educated people, it can be hard to spark discussion of 
the challenges facing NARA.  I've tried to do that in different places, with 
mixed results.  Some time ago, I wrote in another forum about the problems that 
NARA faces as an executive branch agency with a nonpartisan, objective 
mission.  The approach I took was very similar to what I use here, on the Archives 
Listserv.  Yet one respondent shouted me down by saying that any questions about 
the nomination of a U.S. Archivist were purely political - that anyone 
raising questions about challenges to NARA's mission was doing so ONLY for political 
reasons --  and that forum members didn't want to hear those questions.  
 
I responded by saying the views of a former NARA insider might help provide a 
fresh perspective on issues he might not know much about, having never worked 
there, and that I for one welcomed specialized, properly disclosable 
knowledge of other peoples' workplaces that went beyond what newspapers report.  I was 
stymied when he said no, my views carried no more weight than that any other 
forum member.  He actually told me that my views carried less weight than that 
of other forum members (a tip-off that he probably liked things the way they 
were before I started speaking up and felt threatened in some way).
 
How then to talk about NARA, when there are so many obstacles, some hidden, 
some out in the open?  Some groups and professions like a very controlled and 
orderly approach while others thrive on chaos and uncertainty.  While the 
Internet provides many communities in the form of blogs, comment boards and 
listservs, you have to study them and observe the underlying dynamics very carefully. 
  I've learned that my approach - which is premised on letting the chips fall 
where they may in terms of what archival records contain -- doesn't work very 
well in all forums.
 
It hasn't been easy for me to find forums where people welcome discussion of 
NARA, perhaps because the agency's mission is nonpartisan and the disclosure 
of knowledge inherently is chaotic and uncontrollable by the public.  The 
knowledge buried within archival records can seem "unorderly" not because of what 
archivists do or believe, but because it is dependent on the conduct of 
government officials while in office.  The content of the records themselves cannot 
be pigeonholed, controlled or categorized in terms of existing political value 
systems.  Some people accept that, others hate it.
 
Until NARA or another repository releases them, no one knows what is hidden 
in records.  Instead of focusing on the choices made by the officials who 
created the records (such as President Nixon's "abuses of governmental power"), 
some people found it easier to take potshots at the archivists responsible for 
their disclosure.  What effect has this had on the public at large, many of whom 
rarely see NARA in the news except when access battles occur over 
controversial records?  NARA has such a tiny natural constituency of knowledge-seekers.  
NARA's leaders correctly have tried to broaden its appeal by using public 
outreach, exhibits, etc. but millions of Americans still know little about the 
agency.  And historians have done a very poor job of advocating on its behalf or 
explaining the value of primary sources to the public  - in an unpolitical 
manner. 
 
I'll throw open this question to the list, with the hope that people who hold 
varying views will reply, preferably without using political arguments.  If 
you could go to Washington and speak directly to the people in the executive 
and legislative branches who can affect NARA's budget, what would you tell them 
about the value of the agency?  What do you all think would be the most 
effective way to make a case for a robust budget for NARA?  Also, how would you 
appeal to those in professions related to the archival one (historians, records 
managers, librarians) to support NARA, recognizing that they may lack a lot of 
knowledge about the world in which archivists operate and might even have some 
misconceptions?

Maarja

A posting from the Archives & Archivists LISTSERV List sponsored by the Society of American Archivists, www.archivists.org.
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