Primary Source Literacy: The Prequel

As she sat in the research room of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 2014, Fosetina Baker read Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s letter to government officials about the lynching in 1898 of her great-uncle, Frazier Baker.   A racist mob killed Frazier Baker, postmaster of Lake City, South Carolina, and his two-year old daughter, shooting them after setting fire to the family home a few months after he began his government job.

The National Archives holds records on Baker’s appointment as postmaster in a nearly all white town, his murder, and Wells-Barnett’s plea for aid for his widow and surviving children (all shot and injured that night).  In 2008, Dr. Trichita Chestnut, then a National Archives’ declassification archivist, used the records to write a powerful NARA account of Baker’s lynching and Wells-Barnett’s campaign for justice.

Dr. Chestnut, at right in a photo I took at NARA in 2014 when I introduced her to Lucinda Robb, now is a key management and program analyst on the accountability staff of NARA Chief Operating Officer William “Jay” Bosanko.  She and other NARA experts in history, including Dr. Tina Ligon (right photo), write at Rediscovering Black History, a National Archives blog “exploring records relating to African Americans with the Say it Loud! Employee Affinity Group.”

Netisha Currie, whom I featured in my May post about presidential libraries and preparing for digital research, also blogs at the NARA site.  Essays at Rediscovering Black History put into historical context government actions and interactions with African Americans since the 18th century.

As I noted in my post about my colleague Herbert M. Collins, who served in his youth on the all-African American Coast Guard crew at Pea Island in the Jim Crow era, learning stories of individuals is circumstantial.  In the modern era, research may depend on materials preserved as “permanently valuable” in the records management process at Federal agencies or departments.  Oral history can fill in some gaps, as NARA’s History Office shows.

Lucinda Robb, granddaughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson, once worked in the National Archives’ Center for Legislative Archives.  As Kris Wilhelm noted in a Sunshine Week forum at NARA in March, the Center takes in Congressional records under different circumstances than the custodial units for executive branch records.

Researchers can use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request executive branch materials NARA takes in under the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act (1978).  But FOIA does not apply to the Nixon White House records that NARA acquired under the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (1974).  The Nixon collection is remarkably rich in its textual and audiovisual materials because the President expected to treat them as personal property on leaving the White House, as his predecessors had done.

An article in The New York Times on December 2, 1986 noted that,

John Ehrlichman, Mr. Nixon’s one-time assistant for domestic affairs, quoted Mr. Nixon as saying in 1971, ”When I retire I’m going to spend my evenings by the fireplace going through those boxes. There are things in there that ought to be burned. No one needs to see those things.” Mr. Ehrlichman said that Mr. Nixon had remarked that he might leave 25 years of his papers, accumulated as a member of Congress, Senator, Vice President and President, to his two daughters or to a library.”

Passage of the PRMPA in 1974, while Watergate investigations still were ongoing, changed the status of Nixon White House records after the President resigned from office.  The Nixon materials remained in Washington, not in Nixon’s custody, until the Supreme Court upheld the PRMPA in June 1977.  I was a member of the team of National Archives employees who helped move them out of the White House complex and into our archival facilities in August 1977.

The conditions under which a person writes can affect content.  In 2012, journalist Cokie Roberts noted in a book talk about First of Hearts: Selected Letters of Mrs. Henry Adams, that in the 19th century, women such as Clover Adams did not expect their letters to survive them.  However, many prominent men believed that theirs would be saved. She said that if you read such letters, those of prominent men in Washington often seemed to be written for the record. They show self consciousness or awareness of future use.

She said that the letters of their wives often seem livelier and more candid than those of their husbands. Clover Adams was one such woman. Her letters are perceptive and filled with vivid descriptions of Washington in the second half of the 19th century. They are useful for historians because of their detail and lack of self consciousness.

A Task Force made up of representatives of archives and library associations worked between 2015 and 2017 on Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy.  The Society of American Archivists (SAA), of which I’m a member, issued the guidelines this month.   The report offers thoughtful descriptions of how to use primary sources from a traditional special collections perspective

A contextual note states that while “comprised of special collections librarians and archivists, the task force was charged to consider broader perspectives on primary source literacy outside the direct environment of special collections and archives, and to draft guidelines that would be applicable in multiple primary source learning situations with diverse instructor roles, audiences, and purposes.”

As I read the guidelines, I saw opportunities to cover other areas, some of which I’ll look at here.  For example, the guidelines state that “Existing records may have been shaped by the selectivity and mediation of individuals such as collectors, archivists, librarians, donors, and/or publishers, potentially limiting the sources available for research.”  Unmentioned are public and private sector records managers, who may play a key role in what is preserved and transferred to archives and what is destroyed in the creating entity as having temporary value.

The purpose of records management is to identify and schedule disposition of records in a private or public sector entity, preserving those with longterm value to business units or future researchers and destroying  after a set time ones with temporary value.  How this works depends on a number of elements.  Often this goes smoothly and the creating entity and researchers benefit.  At other times not. Certain conditions may result in gaps in records not covered in the task force guidelines, which use a thoughtful but limited definition of silences.

Drawing in part on two good essays written in 1995 and 2006, the task force defined silences as “Gaps or missing pieces in the historical record, often caused by those who were unable to write their own records, or whose records were not considered valuable or were suppressed by the dominant culture. Should be distinguished from merely lack of holdings in a particular repository. Sometimes also referred to as ‘archival silences.'”

Much has changed since 1995 and even 2006.  Although not noted in the task force guidelines, silences can occur under some circumstances when officials who hold powerful positions write.  In 2002, historian Michael Beschloss observed that,

Increasingly worried about such political dangers as subpoenas. . . .officials shy away from putting things on paper. Public figures no longer write the kind of thoughtful, discursive letters and revealing memos that we used to see. People in Washington are more public relations savvy than in earlier times and, thus, more adept at drafting memos and other records that conceal their motives and can fool the historian.

The result of all of this is that a historian of the years of Bill Clinton, George W Bush, or their successors may not have the kind of sources needed to understand who did what to whom and why as well as a scholar might for, say, the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. The result of this could be that historical scholarship on future presidents may become, of necessity, more speculative.

Historian Russell Riley wrote in 2005 that,

Ever since President Richard M. Nixon got tangled up in the transcripts of his own tape recordings, the White House has operated more and more as an oral culture. Anything that shows up in written records can become a target. . . . staffers have learned over the last few decades that the less committed to paper or computer, the better.

Those gaps in the written record have made my job — recording oral histories — more important than ever. But these imperfect recollections, however candid and enlightening, cannot capture the tone nor match the accuracy of contemporaneous notes.

In 2015, lawyer Suzanne Garment wrote about a chill in some Federal Records Act administered materials, as well.  She quoted a friend, a former government official who described the richness of Eisenhower-era records.

“It was amazing,’ he said, “the unvarnished things these people said because they were confident their remarks would never be in the newspapers.”

By the time my friend told me this story, bureaucratic communications had changed. “You get a memo,” he explained, “and you want to comment. You don’t write the comment on the memo, because the comment becomes part of the public record. So, you put the comment on a Post-It Note and send it to the next guy, who reads it and throws the Post-It Note away.”

So much for the historical record — and for the idea that you can force people to make their private thoughts public. . . . They will use Post-It Notes. They will establish private email domains. They will do business verbally instead of in writing. The public record they create will be sanitized into something incomprehensible that requires a machine designed by Alan Turing to decode.

This reflects the same vibe that historian John Earl Haynes described to me in a 2003 conversation about “pre-emptive sanitization.”  He mentioned changes in the rich, deliberative records he and former colleagues in state government once created but no longer did.

After the passage of freedom of information laws that opened these records either immediately or after only a brief period of restricted access, our practices changed. Our discussions became largely verbal supported only by ephemeral personal notes immediately discarded and the written record contained only technical documents and our final decisions with the supporting rationale.

In my view, the issue is not the Freedom of Information Act, which is essential for citizens understanding of or holding government accountable, including requesting access to Presidential Records Act materials five years after the end of an administration.  Many ethical journalists and academic historians whose integrity based writing focuses on pure knowledge use FOIA.  However, some highly partisan opposition research groups also use FOIA. Adversarial use of access laws can affect records content disproportionately.

Some of the same elements showed in SAA’s own Archives & Archivists Listserv, which it decommissioned as toxic on December 31, 2017.  It had served as a gathering place for archivists, librarians, and records managers since the 1990s.

The chilling effect corollary wasn’t  in the news links a records manager shared on the List, although some were highly partisan, reflecting ill-founded conclusions or factual errors by third-party commentators.  Or single-perspective press releases rather than traditional fact check based journalistic output.  Or the political or partisan deflective “whataboutism” that discourages online dialogue.

Cherry picking or misrepresenting what others wrote, weaponizing words or demagoguing issues, can happen with the recorded words of government or private sector officials.  It can happen in our professional forums, too.  The lasting value of A&A (or #thatdarnlist, as some of us on Twitter came to call it) was demonstrating the silencing effect of perceived lack of safe space.  This, despite A&A operating under SAA’s Code of Conduct between 2014 and 2017 (which included the time period the primary sources Task Force operated elsewhere).

Many subscribers, including some but not all SAA leaders, abandoned #thatdarnlist, reducing the chances that those of us who remained could build up a critical mass of participants seeking professional discussion of archives, records management, news and civic literacy.  Hostile rhetoric, disparagement of “the other” (racist, sexist, political, age, or status-based) or lack of listening by some older subscribers led many younger archivists and records managers to leave the Listserv.

I found disheartening the reaction by some veteran subscribers who attacked the thoughtful, highly professional posts to A&A in 2013 by Jarrett M. Drake, a young African American archivist.  (He since has left the archives profession.)  I had it much easier and sometimes mentioned Jarrett’s writing about community archives in my posts.

In 2015, the use of unwarranted sexual innuendo about me in a message posted to A&A by two white male subscribers accustomed to posting to another long established records management listserv unaffiliated with any professional organization provided me new insights into online communications.  I’m grateful SAA took down the offensive sexually suggestive message about me, demonstrating the value of a conduct code.

As Beschloss, Riley, Garment, and Haynes suggest, many of the same elements that stifled or limited deliberations on A&A have caused a “chilling effect” (the motives vary) since 2001 in the content of some records.  The effect seems irreversible.

Over the last 10-15 years, records management forums increasingly have reflected advice from officials outside the government that clients “write in discoverable language.” Or avoid writing down anything sensitive and relying on oral exchanges, instead.  At its most benign (it varies) emphasis on legal discovery rather than institutional memory can leave C Suite officials stranded without perceived means for candor in official written business communications about complex issues they see as vulnerable to misinterpretation or weaponization.

Had the primary sources task force included members of SAA’s Records Management Section, would records managers have been listed among mediators in archival materials?  And silences defined more broadly?  Who knows. But I do know that researchers in primary sources created in the last 20 years in certain sectors will continue to use the content of records, some diminished, some not, in highly diverse ways.  And that historians will need to recognize more silences than in the past and brush up on their oral history skills.

This entry was posted in Archival issues, Cultural competence, History, Records. Bookmark the permalink.

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