Edward Mark: The Astonishing Indifference of Historians to Archival Issues

Roundup: Talking About History

[Edward Mark is a Historian for the Department of the Air Force.]

I should like to offer a few comments inspired by Maarja Krusten's post on the lamentable state of federal record-keeping.

I doubt nothing of what Russell Riley writes in the _Washington Post_ about the lapsed state of record-keeping in the White House. It accords too well with what I have observed elsewhere. Neither do I doubt that political expediency has played a role there and elsewhere in the Executive Branch in permitting this state of affairs to endure for at least two decades. All this conceded, it remains that both Riley's article and Krusten's post are somewhat misleading. To wit:

(1) There is, I must stress, no reason at all to believe, as Riley and Krusten imply, that the state of record keeping is worse in the White House than elsewhere in the Executive Branch. I dare say, in fact, that it is better. Record-keeping has everywhere collapsed in the government, and not only in the United States. (European officials historians with whom I have worked indicate that the problem exists on the Continent as well.) The root cause is, as I have in the past observed in this forum, the inability of the government to deal with electronic records. This is not, I stress, inherent in the nature of electronic records. Indeed, the advent of electronic records should have improved record-keeping. That it failed to do is entirely owning to a failure to institute appropriate archival procedures when the transition to computers was made in the 1980s. Malfeasance has more exploited this state of affairs than caused it.

(2) The loss to history is severe, but as citizens we should not lose sight of the fact that two other consequences are more worse: the loss of accountability for official acts and a generalized decline in the efficiency of government due to the loss or misplacement of documents. The day shall surely come, I predict, when some great and terrible event will bring all these consequences home to the country at large.

What then is to be done?

(1) Congress must empanel a national commission to devise appropriate archival standards and methods of enforcement. These must include, inter alia, stringent and specific standards, enforceable under law, for what must be documented as well how the resulting records are to be preserved. There should be severe criminal penalties for infringements.

(2) Government must engage leading companies in the field of data storage to advise in the creation of an archival system appropriate for an age of electronic records. Too little of the requisite talent exists in the government, where it is any case liable to be inhibited by caution and hostility to change.

(3) The professional societies of the learned professions should form an alliance to preserve public accountability, governmental efficiency, and the historical records.To these ends the societies should petition Congress to address the collapse of record-keeping while suing select federal agencies to observe such archival regulations as they now have, inadequate though they be.

(4) The FOIA should be abolished, to be replaced by a strict 30-year role. This will reduce the temptation to destroy records or else not keep them in the first place. Declassifiers, now inundated by mostly frivolous requests under the FOIA, could then resume progressive declassification of record groups, which has all but stopped.

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 he United States was beastly to their favorite third-world dictators, have remained resolutely indifferent to the crisis of record-keeping. They have theirs - or will in time.

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