Yanek Mieczkowski: Legal Barriers Hamper Scholars' Access to Papers of Recent Presidents

Historians in the News

Yanek Mieczkowski, an associate professor of history at Dowling College, published his first monograph in 2005 — a study of economic and energy policy during Gerald Ford's administration.

He would like to carry his study forward into the Carter and Reagan eras, but he is daunted by the obstacles that lie ahead. Only 18 percent of the 44 million documents at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library have been processed.

If Mr. Mieczkowski wants to search for material in unprocessed documents, he can file a request under the Freedom of Information Act, but the average wait for such requests at the Reagan Library is estimated to be five years. A young scholar's tenure-review period could come and go in the time it takes to do a book's worth of research in the newer presidential libraries.

"An archivist told me that a book on Reagan like my book on Ford would be very difficult to do at this point in time," Mr. Mieczkowski says.

There are many reasons for the slow pace of presidential-archive research: The National Archives and Records Administration, which staffs the libraries, is chronically short of funds for hiring archivists. The amount of material in the recent libraries is so vast that it would take years to process even if the number of archivists were tripled. And the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which governs the libraries from Reagan's forward, requires many research requests to be filed through the Freedom of Information Act. Archivists complain that they spend most of their time complying with complex FOIA requests.

But there is another potential barrier that has infuriated many scholars: In 2001, President George W. Bush issued an executive order that gives ex-presidents and current presidents significantly more power to withhold documents from the public.

Only 11 documents totaling 64 pages have been withheld so far under the order, but scholars complain that the extra review adds an average of 240 days to the time it takes to release certain presidential papers. (The National Archives disagrees, asserting that the extra review process takes an average of 170 days.)...

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