Is the National Archives Preserving or Distorting the Heritage of the New Deal?
In encouraging students to conduct research on important events in history, historians today have access to a wealth of resources on the Internet. I tell my students to view critically all sources but that sites managed by government agencies and university libraries are generally reliable. My experience with calling to the attention of the National Archives an important error on the www.ourdocuments.gov website will lead me to tell students to exercise due caution at even these sites. The National Archives is presenting to the public a revised version of the National Labor Relations Act as if it were the original document and refuses to correct the error. An agency charged with preserving our nation's documents is failing in its duty to honestly present this important pro-union document to the public. It is distorting rather than preserving the heritage of the New Deal.
Seventy five years ago the New Deal began to shift governmental policies toward giving substantial assistance to the poor, workers, farmers, and home owners, and toward significant involvement in the management of the economy to promote employment and economic growth. Several of the New Deal's most important achievements remain part of the fabric our lives today such as the social security system established in 1935 and the regulations limiting child labor and providing for minimum wages, maximum hours, and overtime pay adopted in 1938.
The initial pro-union thrust of the New Deal's most radical legislation, the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, has been significantly weakened by later legislation, most notably the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, and by anti-union administration under Republican presidents. Nevertheless, if we are to gain an understanding of the enlarged role of labor unions in American life that the New Deal fostered we need to appreciate the labor relations system that the 74th Congress led by Senator Robert Wagner and President Franklin Roosevelt put in place in 1935.
The National Labor Relations Act was a one-sided piece of pro-labor legislation. Congress perceived the great imbalance in power between labor and management and sought to encourage workers to join unions, end management interference in union organizing, and compel employers to negotiate with unions selected by a majority of their workers.
Students who turn to the www.ourdocuments.gov website will find the National Labor Relations Act listed among 100 "milestone" documents in our history but they will not find the original legislation. Instead, despite a citation that says the document on the website is the 1935 act as preserved in the National Archives, they will find a revised version of the act with later amendments. Although some of the amendments are documented, most are not. Even if all the amendments were documented, on a project designed to present documents of historic importance, it makes no sense to disguise the content of the original legislation.
I wrote Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, on December 3, 2007, to bring this problem to his attention. I pointed out that placing on the agency's website and including in the published book, Our Documents: 100 Milestone Documents from the National Archives, a transcript with anti-labor sections opposed by unions as if they were part of the original act would prevent the public from getting "an accurate idea of the pro-labor content of the 1935 law." I also listed factual errors and questionable interpretative judgments in the site's introduction to the document. The final sentence of the introduction gets the date of the Taft-Hartley Act wrong and misleadingly asserts that the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act were "expanded" by the Taft-Hartley and the Landrum-Griffin acts.
James Hastings, Director of Access Programs, replied to my letter on January 4, 2008. He thanked me and said "we are working on correcting the errors that you have pointed out." In response to my follow up query, Mr. Hastings on February 5, 2008, told me "We have added a note to the online transcript to indicate that it is the Act as amended since 1935. See http://www.ourdocuments.gov. We are looking into the possibility of adding an errata sheet to the published volume."
This minimal correction misses the main point of my critique and also allows many errors to remain uncorrected. The public continues to be misled. Why post a transcript of a revised act but an image showing the original one? Why include in the published volume and on the website this "citation": "An act to diminish the causes of labor disputes burdening or obstructing interstate and foreign commerce, to create a National Labor Relations Board, and for other purposes, July 5, 1935; General Records of the United States Government; Record Group 11; National Archives" if the transcript that you are presenting is of the act as amended?
I haven't examined the other documents on the www.ourdocuments.gov website. In a published review of the website in the Journal of American History, Timothy Patrick McCarthy and John McMillian characterize the project as "embarrassingly retrograde" for treating oppressed groups as objects rather than subjects of history, including not a single document written by a woman and one only by a person of color, ignoring social movements, and "its failure adequately (or honestly?) to contextualize the major texts it includes." Certainly at a minimum the National Archives owes visitors to its website an accurate presentation of the texts of the documents that are in its custody.
Perhaps the oddest part of this story is that the National Archives conducted a People's Vote in cooperation with the National History Day and U.S. News and World Report. Did the 1,116 people whose votes made the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 number 57 on the 100 Milestone Documents list have in mind the 1935 act or the act as amended over the next fifty years? Certainly the website lists the original text of the Declaration of Independence, the document ranked first, rather than any of the twenty two alternative declarations authored by feminist, labor, farmer, African American, and Socialist groups over the next two centuries.
In this seventy-fifth year of the New Deal's beginning, it is worth reflecting on a moment when government sought to empower working people and encourage unionization. The National Archives can do a little to contribute to the process by correcting the many errors about the National Labor Relations Act on its website.
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Maarja Krusten - 4/19/2008
Thank you, Dr. Bornet, I appreciate your taking into account my support for my former boss, Mr. Hastings.
vaughn davis bornet - 4/19/2008
I would not want to do anything to embarrass James Hastings, given the support displayed above, so I will just send the book and cancel the letters.
All of us do rely on the accuracy of texts and transcripts, however, as we learn through the years.
Vaughn Davis Bornet
Maarja Krusten - 4/17/2008
Apologies for typos and/or syntax erros in my various posts, I often multitask and post hurriedly (in this case as I'm about to rush off to work). I simply do not take the time to proofread, since the Halpern piece is about mistakes, I might as well admit that! Hey, I'm as human as anyone else.
Maarja Krusten - 4/17/2008
I believe I've provided with my hypothetical enough information as to how NARA might so an exhibit. For those who want to consider this further, a few more observations.
As a further hypotethical, the Ford Presidential Library (which is administered and staffed by NARA) might do an exhibit on the end of the Vietnam War. It could draw on some of the materials found in
and other collections.
Note the references in the finding aid to Mr. Mitler's contacts with outside groups regarding POW/MIA issue. As the archivists who wrote the NARA finding aid notes, "This issue, which was the concern of groups like the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, MIA/POW families and concerned members of the public, represented the above groups' and citizens' feelings of being abandoned by the U.S. Government."
The files at the Ford Library might provide some useful glimpses into how the League and other groups handled outreach and how officials in the White House reacted. But to study the League in depth, you would have to go to a repository that houses its own papers and reflects all its internal and external interactions, beyond those with the White House and government agencies. I think most historians know that -- it's so basic -- but somehow the point seems to have been blurred in the McMillian and McCarthy review.
Maarja Krusten - 4/17/2008
I finally had time to look for a copy of the McCarthy and McMillian review cited by Halpern and to read it (http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6963/ ).
McCarthy and McMillian write of NARA's Our Documents project that
“Although these documents deal with some of the major themes of U.S. history—slavery and civil rights, westward expansion, the rise of industrial capitalism, and America’s
increasing power abroad—by treating African Americans, women, Native Americans, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and workers as mere subjects of history, rather than as historical agents in their own right, this collection is embarrassingly retrograde. Even the abolition of slavery—one of American democracy’s greatest triumphs—is presented here as mostly the work of Abraham Lincoln rather than the thousands of abolitionists, black and white, who for decades risked their careers and lives to redeem America from its ‘original sin.’”
But McCarthy and McMillian overlook a central point – the legislative mandate of the agency in question. Collecting materials about abolitionists – or some historically interesting aspects of many of the other groups the authors mention – does not fall within the statutory mandate of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), except as they are mentioned in government records.
The documents for the virtual exhibit largely are drawn from the archival holdings of the National Archives. NARA is a federal agency whose mission is to accession and, over time, to make available to the public the statutorily disclosable portions of federal government records. Yep, that’s right: government records. This includes the materials McCarthy and McMillian refer to as “boring” – predecisional and postdecisional documents about “court rulings, treaties, and legislation,” and so forth.
These days, accessioning such records is done through a process of records management, including appraisal and scheduling. (Notices of intent to revise retention schedules for the records of federal agencies are published periodically by NARA in the Federal Register.) As NARA notes on its website, “Of all documents and materials created in the course of business conducted by the United States Federal government, only 1%-3% are so important for legal or historical reasons that they are kept by us forever.”
With NARA’s mission in mind, here’s how it would work for an area in which I once worked as a National Archives employee, the tapes and files of the Nixon White House. If NARA were to put up a physical or virtual exhibit that drew on records that it has released to the public about the Vietnam War, here’s how it would work. Archivists might draw from transcripts of the released portions of Nixon’s tapes; materials in the Nixon White House Special Files and Central Files; materials in Record Groups for other government agencies, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of State; and audiovisual materials in NARA’s holdings.
But it would be unreasonable to look in such an exhibit for many documents that showed the broad perspective of families of soldiers who fought in Vietnam. (The sort of picture that is beautifully captured on an individual basis in Donna Moreau’s recent, very poignant memoir, _The Waiting Wives of Schilling Manor, Home Front to the Vietnam War_.) Or members of anti-war groups. Or other nonovernmental groups.
Yes, you might get glimpses, because private citizens often contact public officials about matters under the jurisdiction of their departments and aencies.
NARA's Nixon White House collection actually contains some interesting letters to the President from members of the public, although the released portions have been little used by scholars. (Some appear in a collection I processed for public opening in the late 1980s, while employed by NARA -- the WHCF: [Presidential] Trips file series. There are other released Nixon WH Central Files collections that contain interesting, albeit self-selected, examples of public opinion.)
But NARA would not be the place to go to look for a comprehensive exhibit that centered on military families (except in their interaction with DOD and other agencies) or one that focused largely on the anti-war movement. Materials about such groups might be found however in special collections or donated materials in private sector repositories.
Maarja Krusten - 4/15/2008
For anyone interested in learning more about James Hastings, see his online comments from 1998 at a Conference on the Power of Free Inquiry and Cold War International History. His discussant comments are available at
I no longer worked at NARA as of 1998 (I left its employ in 1990) but I attended the conference.
Maarja Krusten - 4/14/2008
If you look at the posted transcript on the ourdocuments.gov website to which Halpern links, you can see that for the National Labor Relations Act (1935) it states at the bottom:
Transcription courtesy of the United States National Labor Relations Board. The organizational name is hyperlinked to http://www.nlrb.gov/
At that site, one can find in the section on Rules and Regulations the language of the amended Act at
A project of this nature is a collaborative effort. Many people play a role. My guess is that there are NARA employees who pull the documents in questions, others who digitize them, others who work up the contextual information, and still others who act as web designers and web masters. Not all of these people may be permanent staff as many federal agencies outsource some functions nowadays. Of the tasks listed above, Hastings would have done none of that, he is far too senior in rank.
The job of the managers is to field questions -- of all kinds -- and, if necessary, look into what occurred (or assign subordinates to do so) and see what fixes would make most sense. The latter involves balancing options against each other. NARA is short staffed, it must prioritize its staff assignments. For every thing one person wants on the outside wants, someone else has to wait his or her turn in a queue. While researchers and other customers often wonder why they do not get immediate resolution, that simply is not possible. NARA receives its budget from appropriated funds and that budget has not been large of late.
Yes, it's important to get things right. But given the way these things work, simple human errors will occur. I cannot predict how soon NARA will fix this one. As all civil agencies do these days, NARA must do more with less. Remember, it even had to curtail its research room hours for a while during FY 2007.
We don't have access to Hastings's response to Halpern. If we did, knowing Jim, I very much doubt it says, "gee, we assigned this to John Doe to work on and doggone, he messed it up."
There probably is a simple, technical explanation for what happened. If I had to guess what happened, I would guess that after the Act was chosen for inclusion, an unnamed and consequently unknown Archives employee searched for an online rendering of the Act. Finding one would enable NARA to post a transcript without having to key the text separately. Moreover, by posting such a text, NARA could link readers to the source. Haven't some of you used online versions of the U.S. Code and other sources? I certainly have.
If you look for such online versions, however, you usually find the language currently in force. My guess is that someone searched for where the text already was posted, copied the text and sourced it, properly, to the U.S. NLRB. Another person probably did a quality control check and said, yes, this is the Act in question. That the amended version was posted may have resulted from something as simple -- and simply human -- as no one comparing the language to that of the engrossed bill pictured in the image.
I bet that's it. As to resolution of the issue, that too will come, I am sure. People at NARA juggle many assignments. I'm sure someone has been tasked either to work up a blurb, explaining the differences between the original Act and the one in force as of 2008. Or to key the text of the original. As that person makes his or her way through the stack of assignments in his or her in box, I am sure the fix will be made, sooner rather than later. Keep in mind, staff resources at NARA are stretched very thin due to budgetary constraints, demographic factors, mandates, and other reasons.
Since my sense is that the issue still is open, although I agree that accuracy matters, especially for government websites, mistakes do occur from time to time. Knowing how burdened NARA is with work, I would not have written this essay for posting on HNN so soon after sending in inquiries. I would have given this some more time.
And even if I didn't know Jim Hastings, I certainly wouldn't have jumped to conclusions about what he did and why. I would hope most historians wouldn't, either. But that's a potential topic for another posting.
Maarja Krusten - 4/14/2008
Hastings's reassignment may have been effective in 1988 rather than 1987. (He "wore two hats" for awhile.)
And obviously where I wrote NARA inquiry, I meant Halpern inquiry.
In transit in subway, more anon.
Maarja Krusten - 4/14/2008
This is a website for people interested in history, not a purely political website. I would hope most historians would read an essay such as this one without jumping to conclusions. Historians focus on various arcane issues related to the fields in which they are interested. Some scholars feel strongly about issues – that comes across in what they write in public forums and how they plead their causes. Sometimes, scholars write to government officials. But such contact works best if one sticks to the known facts, considers the issues carefully, and applies contextual sophistication. In this case, the article offers only a small glimpse at what happened, without explaining why. There is nothing in the essay that warrants jumping to any conclusions of the sort Dr. Bornet offers above. In fact, I can say that to make such assumptions about James Hastings is very unfair.
James Hastings was my boss at the National Archives’ Nixon Presidential Materials Project from the time he was named acting director in May 1979 until his re-assignment to work with other Presidential records in 1987. A senior Archives’ official told me in 1977 that he would need archivists of “special integrity” to work with Nixon’s records. That official later chose Hastings to oversee the complex task of screening Nixon’s White House tapes and documents for disclosure. Despite years of association with Hastings, I have no idea what his political persuasions are. That tells HNN’s readers something about the objective, nonpartisan manner in which archives officials such as Hastings do their work. Far from being political appointee, he is one of the finest examples of civil servants whom I know. It was an honor for me to work with a man of such integrity, courage and skill.
Politics does not come into play in the way federal archivists perform their work. I know that from my own work between 1976 and 1990, when I screened 2,000 hours of 3,700 hours of Nixon’s WH tapes to see what could be released from them. From whom did I learn how to work in a professional, objective, nonpartisan manner? From James Hastings, among other Archives’ officials. To this day, many of his former subordinates praise Hastings as the finest boss for whom they ever worked in government service. Much of what I know and have later applied about leadership, management, and stewardship obligations came from observing people such as Hastings. That I have succeeded so well in my own later career outside the Archives in another federal agency owes much to his example.
Scholars who are interested in learning more about Hastings’s outstanding stewardship of the National Archives’ Nixon Project may turn to a fine article by Clement Vose, “The Nixon Project,” in PS, Vol. 16, No.3.(Summer,1983), pp.512-521. Those with access to JSTOR can download from there the article, which was published in a magazine then put out by the American Political Science Association.
As to the issue of the posted transcript, errors occur sometimes and Hastings correctly informed Halpern that NARA was looking into how best to correct them. That he replied early in January to a letter sent in December not to him, but to the agency head, seems reasonable, given the duties such officials juggle.
Again, I would urge HNN’s readers not to rush to judgement here. That would be manifestly unfair even among those who know nothing of Hastings. If you step back and re-read the article, you can see that readers lack information as to why the transcript was posted, what the source was, and what steps NARA now judges to be necessary to deal with NARA’s inquiry. The issues are still open, the matter has not yet been resolved.
Of course, this is but one of many issues with which officials of Hastings’s senior rank might deal. For context, consider that Hastings heads the NARA functional unit which oversees:
·The Customer Services Division;
·The Archives Library Info. Center;
·Product Development Staff;
·Holdings Management Staff;
·Special Media Archives Services Division (Cartographic, Motion Pictures, Still Pictures);
·Textual Archives Services Division (processing and reference);
·and, perhaps most challenging in terms of the type of complex assignments handled, the unit in which my late twin sister, Eva Krusten, once worked - Special Access/FOIA LICON.
Anyone with so many responsibilities is bound to see a lot of internal and external correspondence each and every day. Officials at this level handle many extremely difficult, sensitive and challenging issues, far greater than anything described here. If Hastings says NARA is working on this particular issue, there is no reason to assume that this is not the case.
Based on his sterling reputation, I do not have any doubts -- whatsoever -- that Hastings and his associates will resolve this matter in a reasonable manner.
Federal historian and former National Archives’ Nixon Project archivist
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vaughn davis bornet - 4/14/2008
After examining the site of which Professor Halpern properly complains, and noting as he did that a tiny warning has been added as the result of his observations, I decided to test my surviving library of old history/documents books.
This has nothing to do with the case against the National Archives, but maybe some will want to know that the original Act's text is in the second volume of my Commanger Documents of American History, ninth edition (pp. 314-318. I wonder if anybody else has this antique published in 1973 by Prentice-Hall?
Vaughn Davis Bornet
vaughn davis bornet - 4/14/2008
Reading this fine essay was a great way to start a Monday morning. It is great to see this historian calling a federal employee to behave in an ethical manner. For it is indeed an ethical matter. False labeling is an unwarranted violation of public trust.
I can't help wondering if we have here a simple scenario of a Republican appointee trying to advance an Administration's image of pro-business bias. It is hard to believe such stupidity, which was bound to be transparent before long.
Scholars use these sites to write their manuscripts. We rely on government officials to be forthright and honest.
I will be printing out this letter and sending it to l. the Repubican National Committee, 2. the offical in question, before the day is out. I will also call the local office of our congressman, where I know somebody well. I will take a stab at calling the official, but my recent record of calling government and corporations is so bad in its results and so hard on the patience and the nerves, I that I hesitate to do this to myself.
Thank you for this essay. I am sending you a copy of my now old book Labor Politics in a Democratic Republic (1964) on the theory that you couldn't possibly own one. The bibliography may be helpful to one wit your identified speciality.
Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ph.D. Ashland, Oregon
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