Returning Trump's Stolen Records Won't Make America's Archives CompleteRoundup
tags: archives, primary sources
Karin Wulf is Beatrice and Julio Mario Santo Domingo director and librarian, John Carter Brown Library and professor of history, Brown University.
The unprecedented crisis between former president Donald Trump and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) highlights the Archives’ critical government and public service role. It also offers a primer on how archives have come to be both essential for the public but also key contributors to the partial nature of our histories.
Missing records — in this case because of a recalcitrant former president seemingly in defiance of both the Presidential Records Act and other laws governing government documents — are only one of the many ways that archival records are incomplete. Both public (government) and private archives have often been biased and exclusionary, collecting and sharing primarily the materials of elite people or materials created from their perspective. Just as NARA is making a very public effort to secure the records of the previous presidential administration, archivists in the United States and indeed around the world have been pressing for ever more critical scrutiny of their own and others’ institutional practices.
It wasn’t always possible to locate let alone to use federal records. Though the U.S. government was always concerned with record-keeping, before NARA was founded in 1934, government records were kept in “various basements, attics, abandoned buildings, and other storage places with little security or concern for storage conditions,” the Archives’ own history reports.
Now headquartered in Washington, in an iconic building on Pennsylvania Avenue that houses federal records and also displays the Declaration of Independence, the Federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights, NARA also manages more than 40 facilities and regional centers across the United States. Since its origin via the National Archives Act, NARA lists the Federal Records Act of 1950 and the Presidential Records Act of 1978 among the milestone legislation that makes the agency responsible for managing materials produced by the federal government.
Governments have been largely interested in preserving records of their own activities, such as property records, licenses, meetings of government bodies, legislation, court decisions and so on. There are national archives in countries around the world. There are also state libraries and archives across the United States. Cities and counties often have public records offices or archives, too. In Rhode Island, for example, the state archives are managed by the secretary of state and are “home to more than 10 million letters, photographs, and important state documents that form a permanent, tangible record of Rhode Island’s rich history.” In Providence, the city archives hold an estimated 40,000 cubic feet of records providing a detailed window into the development and operation of city government since 1636.
But as vast as these collections are, they are highly incomplete. Most public and private institutions have a much larger body of materials documenting the lives of White and elite people and political and economic histories, than those documenting the lives of Black or Indigenous people or cultural histories. Wealthy families often kept family papers and then contributed their family archives to local historical societies, for example, and public records often overrepresent wealthier individuals, keeping marginalized people, well, marginal. Scholars have had to work creatively to pull the histories of marginalized people out of elite sources.