Lost in the Archives
It isn't obscure, but the National Archives is important
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the need for strengthening the National Archives and Records Administration.
Lost in the Archives
With a vacancy in the office of Archivist of the Untied States, the National Archives and Records Administration is at a turning point, and this should matter to you because NARA matters a lot. It’s time for Congress and the public to make sure the next officeholder has the character and values needed to help protect government integrity—and to maintain vigilance over this agency.
One of the adjectives most frequently applied to the NARA is “obscure”. Common though it is, I’m not sure how accurate calling NARA obscure is. If the standard is that most people haven’t heard of it, well, that’s probably true—but it’s also far from distinguishing: most people haven’t heard of most federal agencies, and most federal agencies don’t have a million visitors a year to their ceremonial headquarters. But I do think that people who write about NARA like to call NARA obscure because it marks them as part of the cognoscenti. And I also suspect that NARA itself likes to think of itself as obscure because being in the spotlight brings all kinds of complications that any agency would, all else being equal, prefer to avoid.
What NARA is, however, is misunderstood. I think it’s fair to say that most folks who have thought about it understand that the government has records, and that those records need to be ordered, preserved, and made accessible. The details of how archivists and archives work, however, are definitely not well known, even among their “customers” (historians, political scientists, genealogists, and others). Search for stock art of “archives” (as I very recently did) and you will find a lot of photographs of libraries with old books. “Old” and “paper’ points in the right direction, I suppose, but it’s a little bit like looking for photographs of lightning and coming up with stock art of lightning bugs.
And the importance of those misunderstood functions is underappreciated—something again related to obscurity but, when you think about it, quite distinct. It’s easy to dismiss recordkeeping as, well, beta. That’s unfair; eventually, just about everyone wants to know what happened in some point in the past, and if you can’t find the records (or you can’t find all the records), well, you’re kind of screwed. Keeping a consistent archive is like documenting code or maintaining financial controls: it seems pointless until it’s really, really not. But it also isn’t the sort of cool thing to talk about at parties, and it sure isn’t the sort of thing that brings fame or wealth.
The combination of being misunderstood and underappreciated, combined with all the incentives to make NARA seem “obscure”, explains why most articles about the Archives follow a formula: this obscure agency finds itself at the center of this important controversy. It’s a series of beats as familiar as a Law & Order cold open ending with a corpse being found during a pickup basketball game: utterly predictable, but conventionally surprising.
If the formula seems familiar, it’s because the list of NARA-related front-page controversies is long, ranging from the disposition of Richard Nixon’s presidential records (including the White House tapes) to the ratification of the 27th Amendment to a George W. Bush-era program of re-classifying declassified documents to a recent fight over the proposed (and ultimately halted) closure of the agency’s Seattle branch, home to numerous valuable tribal records among other collections. The Trump era has featured NARA-involved disputes over the former president’s habit of destroying legally protected presidential records, the improper removal of records from the White House, and most recently the Secret Service’s destruction of potentially coup-related texts. Even “but her emails” was a National Archives-related scandal.
In all of these cases, NARA mattered because its processes touched on fundamental questions of governance. That’s probably most obvious in the case of amending the Constitution (where the final decision about when that’s happened has ended up with the Archivist), but it’s the clear through-line for everything else. Democracy requires accountability; accountability requires record-keeping; record-keeping requires nonpartisan, competent, and upstanding administration. Nixon fought to keep his records private not out of an abstract concern for the presidency but because of the very real political—and legal—jeopardy those records entailed, which is of course the same reason that having those records were essential. (History, it turns out, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does in fact rhyme.)
Elsewhere, I’ve written about how the presidential library system, the most prominent part of the Archives system, came about after a century and a half of neglect of presidential records (and about how FDR’s motivations in setting it up were a lot less pure than often described). Yet the underlying justifications—an open society requires open records—are stronger than any of the genealogical flaws in the agency’s political history. And over time the Archives has in fact gotten better, on average, in its protection of records, even if access has been less satisfactorily improved. As the past few years have reminded us, though, decline is a choice—and it’s a choice that can be made.
The keystone of the Archives is the Archivist of the United States. One of the very few “OTUSes” in the system (along with POTUS and Chief Justice OTUS), the Archivist is a presidential appointee with an indefinite term.1 Like the FBI director, AOTUS is supposed to be above politics and chosen for their qualifications. That the AOTUS has occasionally been a political hack does not change those qualifications.
At times, AOTUS choices have been inspiring but ultimately flawed; at other times, they’ve betrayed a potential White House confusion about the distinction between running a library system and running an archives. An archives is about the dynamic preservation of records that should be open eventually, while a library system is about the management of a shifting collection to serve various publics. One has a public-facing mission; the archives have a much less pronounced emphasis.
The ideal Archivist would be resolutely committed to nonpartisanship and the collection of records. The past few years has shown that this requires a stepped-up presence and a willingness to pull the fire alarm. Executing that mission requires cultivating the assistance of allies in the public, the media, and especially in Congress. That’s a public-facing job that’s different from thinking about how to more efficiently run the vast Federal Records Centers, which account for the less-visible (and truly obscure) bulk of NARA’s work, but such is the difference between politics and administration: when you’re an agency head, it doesn’t matter if you follow the checklist for ordinary times during periods of extraordinary challenges.
Separately, an ideal Archivist would campaign for massively stepped-up budgets. Archival processing in the flagship presidential libraries is enormously slow both because of insufficient staffing for the mountains of records that modern administrations create and because of well-intentioned but misguided legal requirements about how to process records. Archival morale in the FRCs is low because it’s a demoralizing, underfunded assignment with little prestige or recognition. Even as the federal government has grown more complex and records more fiendish, budgets have remained flat in real terms for decades. Doubling the budget over five years would be a good start, because underfunding means that records are released slowly and available sporadically.
Finally, an ideal Archivist would live up to key values. That would include not only preserving records but also safeguarding the independence of the agency and its constituent parts. It would not include, as Tim Naftali recently detailed in The Atlantic, cutting deals with presidential library foundations (which are run by the retainers and families of the exes) that surrender the Archives’s commitment to presenting nonpartisan views of history. Especially in the libraries, NARA has traditionally bent over to accommodate presidential cliques and partisans, especially in museum spaces, and an Archivist should understand that some compromises go too far.
At some point, the new AOTUS will be chosen. When that happens, it will be crucial for the nominee to make public and sincere commitments to restoring NARA’s commitments to safeguarding the integrity of U.S. democracy (including during presidential elections) and upholding nonpartisan views of U.S. history. They should also work to make increasing access to federal records a priority, both by increasing processing speeds and by expanding electronic access. Finally, they should talk about specific steps to be taken to make it easier to protect federal records before they fall under NARA’s remit. Congress (including funding and oversight committees in the House) should insist on nothing less—and should also make sure to fund and support the Archives adequately to make those words a reality.
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