As I introduced Eric Holder to my longtime friend, Bonnie Mulligan, in 2014, I was curious as to how the then-Attorney General would react to meeting a former employee. I still was in civil service but Bonnie, my contemporary, retired from federal service in 2011. She began her career working on disclosure review in the National Archives’ declassification division. Later in the 1970s, she joined the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) staff at the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Holder was at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) not as a speaker, but in the audience, listening and learning. He joined a packed house for the screening of a 1963 film about the clash between Governor George Wallace and President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy over racial integration of the University of Alabama.
Eric Holder’s wife, Obstetrician and Gynecologist Dr. Sharon Malone, spoke on a panel at NARA following the film screening. Her late sister, Vivian Malone, was one of two black students whose enrollment at the all-white university Gov. Wallace sought to block in 1963. Wallace defied Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach and federal marshals as he stood in the doorway of the university, backing down only when National Guard troops arrived to ensure the admission of Vivian Malone and James Hood.
The photo shows my delight at Holder’s reaction as he heard Bonnie explain where she had worked in the Department of Justice, then thanked her for her public service. A wonderful moment for a friend whose career at NARA and DOJ was honorable and guided by the rule of law.
The photo also shows a mistake I made. Rather than wearing a suit jacket on a hot summer day, I just put a men’s shirt over a dark short-sleeved women’s shirt. I like to wear ties, which fit well with the men’s shirts I often wore then (still do). But the collar of the dark shirt wasn’t suited for staying in place over the tie. A reminder that records show us as we are, including our miscalculations or mistakes.
After his assassination, the Kennedy family donated John F. Kennedy’s White House records to the National Archives at a time when presidential records were considered personal property. The official portions of Richard Nixon’s records were the first to be considered government property after he left office, the transition shown in the files of his successor, Gerald R. Ford.
I described the change in the status of Nixon’s records in a September post, “Available to assist.” The title came from a NARA Ford presidential document about the role of archivists in Washington. I had just assisted a researcher, Courtney Taylor, and the quote in the Ford file resonated with me.
While I worked with presidential records as well as federal records during my government career, Bonnie’s work at NARA and DOJ over three decades centered on records from executive agencies and departments. As did mine, her career spanned the administrations of Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama.
You see some of Bonnie’s National Archives declassification unit colleagues with me and Office of Presidential Libraries staff at an awards ceremony in 1979. At the time I was working on disclosure review of different records under two separate sets of regulations. One governed donated materials administered under a deed of gift, the other reflected statutory control. Neither had provisions for access under FOIA.
Such distinctions come naturally to those of us within the federal government. We swear an oath of office to uphold the Constitution and keep the rights of all stakeholders in mind. But members of the public sometimes learn about records issues from others. What for us are clear distinctions described using terms of art with specific meanings can become blurred in the process.
When Courtney Taylor asked me if I would be willing to answer some questions about archival work for an article for the Literary Hub, I agreed, glad of the opportunity to discuss these issues. I’ve extracted from my email and uploaded the responses I sent Courtney Taylor between August 30, 2019 and September 3, 2019. You don’t see her questions as I don’t know if I’m authorized to share them. Yes, that’s my archivist vibe.
I focused in the linked responses I sent her on the transition represented in the Presidential Recordings and Materials Act (PRMPA) of 1974, which applied only to Richard Nixon’s records. A release from Nixon’s records recently had made the news. I was familiar with the statute, regulations, and change management issues, having worked on them early in my career.
The National Archives has good information on its website about the laws and regulations for presidential and federal records. I looked during September and October to see if Lithub published anything about archivists’ roles in disclosure review. When I saw nothing and didn’t hear back from Courtney Taylor, I thought I might use my last response about advice to archivists at my own blog, instead. You’ll see that in my next post about aligning professional goals and personal values.
In my last blog post, “Legacy,” I examined news reporting and the commendable efforts by library and information science educators such as Lisa Hinchliffe to improve information and news literacy. (There’s even a look at OK, Boomer.) Since I’m focused on Fedland, I often write about civic literacy, too.
Archival education is part of the mix and I’m in the middle of drafting a post about the value of knowing the distinctions between different types of work across the records life cycle while considering where to work. Corporate, academic and government records work share some common characteristics but the workplace ethos can vary. I know the governmental better than the other two as my entire career has been spent in Fedland. But I’ve caught glimpses of the academic and corporate world on Listservs and Social Media.
Yesterday I discovered that Lithub published on November 21, 2019, an essay, On the Great Secret-Keepers of History, by Courtney Taylor. This sounded generally like the proposed article for which I had been interviewed but as I read it, I saw no quotes or input from me. Courtney Taylor focused on FOIA, access, and transparency. She wrote of a segment of the Nixon tapes administered by NARA under PRMPA that
In 2018, Naftali filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, asking NARA to re-review the tape; Reagan’s death in 2004 would have eliminated the previous privacy concerns. The complete tape was released online through the Nixon Library and shortly afterward, Naftali wrote a piece for The Atlantic that drew all eyes to its contents.
The release of the full tape raised questions about the power of the privacy exemption to FOIA, which bars researchers from gaining access to documents that would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” These terms remain broadly defined, allowing the exemption to be deployed in a range of circumstances, with varied outcomes for researchers. Nixon’s tapes pose particular challenges to researchers due to the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which shifted presidential records from private to public ownership in the wake of Nixon’s resignation; certain Nixon records remained private in the aftermath.
Missing was an explanation that the shift to public ownership of the Nixon records occurred not in 1978 with the PRA but with in 1974 with the PRMPA,which has no provision for researcher access through FOIA. As a former NARA official, Timothy Naftali knows, as I do, that the National Archives re-reviews previously restricted materials under the PRMPA’s implementing regulations: 36 CFR §1275.52, Periodic review of restrictions. The goal is to see if more information can be released.
While researchers cannot FOIA the Nixon records, which the Lithub article suggests they can, they may appeal existing restrictions under 36 CFR §1275.54. Dr. Naftali would know that, as do I. I covered some PRMPA issues in my August response to Courtney Taylor. I’m a total Fedland nerd, as a Twitter friend once said, and am happy to share such links to regulations, if asked.
Does it matter that FOIA may seem blurred to some readers of the Lithub article, which looks at Nixon records but also at non-archival FOIA review and Federal Records Act materials still held as active records in the executive agencies and departments? The types of records Bonnie Mulligan worked on for decades at DOJ. And for which Attorney General Eric Holder and his predecessors issued FOIA application guidance through their subordinates during Bonnie’s career. Guidance that applies to all of the executive agencies and departments, including the National Archives.
FOIA also is an element in the Presidential Records Act of 1978 but with some differences for archival records from the way it’s applied to still active Federal records held in executive agencies and departments. I’m always ready to point researchers to examples where they can see this on publicly available withdrawal sheets. Or link to NARA presentations.
In legal issues, appeal rights, and claims processes, or the history of records access, or in my favorite subject, change management, such distinctions may be of interest to historians and other users of records. Those differences involve your rights as a citizen to government information under distinctly different legal and regulatory structures. Information about them is freely available online. You don’t need a gatekeeper, me or any other current or former archivist or historian.
For the regulations governing access to the Nixon materials I cited above, NARA links to govinfo.gov. The National Archives also livestreams informative forums about the statutes that cover access to archival and operational records and how to use them to request access. Some presentations include handouts you can download. I blogged about one such panel session that looked at access and transparency in a post in March 2018 that I called “Empowerment.” My post about researcher empowerment also looked at a forum at which the Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero, and the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, discussed their roles in the executive and legislative branches, respectively.
Courtney Taylor didn’t quote me or any former disclosure review archivists from NARA but did include remarks from Cassie Findlay, a corporate information governance specialist who works at Gap Inc. Cassie Findlay’s earlier experience was with records in Australia, which is the area in which I remember her occasionally posting on now defunct archives and archivists listservs.
She’s also written some useful pieces on electronic records. Although her pinned tweet refers to an area she touched in her Lithub quote, it’s outside the scope of my focus here. My post centers on authorized disclosures by archivists and records professionals rather than such unauthorized disclosures.
The Lithub article didn’t use quotes from Federal, state or local government archivists but includes a response from the National Archives press office. The official states that NARA is impartial, which fits with the way my team and I worked in the 1980s. The quote about NARA not making value judgments or interpreting records resonates, reflecting the agency I know now and the culture I saw 43 years ago as a young archivist, as well. While I was not involved in the later work done in 2000, I knew the archivists who were and regard them, as this 2000 news article also suggests, as honorable people who worked under particular circumstances I described for Lithub.
My volunteer work in retirement enables me to help staff a wide array of education and public programs and forums at NARA. You can watch most of them live or on demand on the National Archives You tube channel. And download materials from Know Your Records sessions.
You’re welcome to read my blog posts and my responses to Courtney Taylor’s questions about how archivists handle access. Archivists often say, “it depends,” and it does. Working as an academic archivist or a corporate archivist can be quite different from working as a Federal or state archivist. You see distinctions within broad categories, no two workplaces the same. The web provides us information on the how and why of archival work. Social Media provides insights into values and ethos, to the extent people are willing to share them.
There are many Maarjas and Bonnies out there who’ve worked across multiple administrations in jobs requiring application of laws, regulations, case law, and precedents. Look around for them. If the voice of a Bonnie or Maarja doesn’t resonate for you (these things are highly individual), find knowledge partners whose style (not just collars and ties, ha!) fits your comfort zone. Some are retirees, as I am, others currently work at the National Archives. They are there to help you. Freely. And sometimes even joyfully!
If you read Courtney Taylor’s November 21, 2019 Literary Hub article and also made it through my blog post (thank you!) and are interested in Fedland, start by reading the information on NARA’s website. There’s much to explore. If you prefer listening to reading, watch some of the education and Sunshine Week and Know Your Records sessions on the National Archives’ You Tube channel.
And as NARA General Counsel Gary M. Stern (pictured above with a Freedom of Information Act display) said in a forum about access questions: “Come talk to us.”