Saturday, January 19, 2008

Presidential Records and the National Archives

I was surfing around the Truman Library site this morning and in exploring the work of the Assistant Archivist for Presidential Libraries Sharon Fawcett, I discovered an interview with her that discusses the role of the National Archives in both preserving and providing access to the presidential papers. As can be expected, the short news blurbs don't usually tell the "rest of the story".

As a scholar, I first began doing research at presidential libraries while I was researching my dissertation on Harry Truman as a former president. Truman was the president most responsible for the preserving presidential records in the presidential library format as well as helping to enact legislation to provide former presidents with a pension. To my knowledge, Truman was the first president who went home to Independence, Missouri, after leaving the presidency and had no options but to live with his mother-in-law given that he had no "reserve" funds or existing income to support him in his retirement. Both are controversial, especially among some members of Congress, but this blog entry is going to focus on access to presidential records.

Even before electronic records became a part of the picture, presidential administrations produced voluminous amounts of records. And, from the beginning, the personal and the public has always been a blurred line because much of what the president does is something he discusses with friends and family members. And, especially with the advent of email and some recent administration officials' unwillingness to use it so that there is no record, some public leaders are quite afraid that their thoughts and ideas and communications can be too easily miscommunicated. So, it's a given that many presidential libraries will be surrounded by controversy.

Because Truman was the president in focus of this topic and his post-presidential papers are also at the Truman Library, I spent most of my research time in Independence. Luckily, I have relatives there who invite me to stay with them and thus significantly cut down my research costs - especially now that I am primarily scanning instead of making paper copies of documents. I still remember how welcoming Librarian Liz Safly is and was to any researcher. She always introduces everyone and also welcomes them to the break room to interact with other staff at the library. In part, this reflects Truman's own openness that he displayed in the decade he spent going to the library almost every day after his presidency. Only a fall in the bathtub in the early 1960s slowed him down prior to his death in the early 1970s. Liz was the Truman Library staff member who discovered the Truman journal written in a real estate book that had been sitting unnoticed in a desk for decades and provides a treasure trove of insight into Truman the man.

Phil Lagerquist was still working full time when I was first doing my research and he was the primary archivist who helped Truman move his papers to Independence and organize the library. Dennis Bilger was also a huge help and once commented that, at the time, I had done the most thorough job of looking through all of the relevant files.

Professor Jim Giglio of Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) had written an article for Presidential Studies Quarterly about the Truman post-presidency and suggested the topic when I met him at a regional history conference in Springfield at his university - The Mid-America Conference on History. Jim is also the author of the University Press of Kansas presidential series book on John F. Kennedy and has published a book about Stan Musial and is now working on a Missouri politician in his retirement.

As I traveled to other presidential libraries to find out if they had any Truman-related records because of any interaction or discussions they may have had relevant to any interactions they had with former presidents, including Truman. Partisanship, of course, played a pivotal role. And a significant number of records deal primarily with Secret Service protection of former presidents and their families.

Truman's records are full of references to various offers from the private sector that he says he refused to take because doing so with be undignified for a former president. Most of Truman's predecessors, however, did not agree with Truman and were more than willing to accept private funds for speaking and other official duties on behalf of particular companies and/or organizations.

Much of my early research was in the dark ages before the internet made not only finding aids but actual records more readily available online. So, even talking with archivists, I rarely knew much about what I might or might not find. One of the crucial factors was whether or not the records had been processed.

This points to one of the most important points that the press often doesn't have time to reference in its blurbs about access to presidential records- the sheer number of them just take lots of people and a great deal of time to preserve, organize, and make accessible. It may not be that a particular president or spouse or government official is trying to block records being available, it's quite often just not enough people and not enough time - especially as federal funding does not increase to match the increasing volume of records to process and the increasing demands for faster and more immediate access to the records.

Driving through the recent ice storm in Oklahoma reminded me of my trip to the Kennedy Library during the Blizzard of 96. I started the morning in Hartford, CT, having driven my Grand Am from my relatives in Youngstown, OH, to get to Boston. Snow had been predicted but the blizzard was not something I expected. After surviving a snow plow pouring icy snow over the overpass onto my windshield, I arrived at the door of the Kennedy Library to a mostly empty parking lot. I was greeted by a security guard who wanted to know what I wanted. My reply - "to research, of course". I didn't realize the whole city was virtually shut down - I naively thought that Boston could handle any amount of snow. So, I stayed nearby and did some reading (remember, no internet or email yet!) until they were opened the next day. I did find a great Italian deli within walking distance of the motel.

I was also caught in a blizzard when I researched at the Hoover Library in Iowa. Hoover had careers both before and after his presidency and Hoover and Truman had a good relationship and kept in contact with one another.

The Johnson Library held the most records primarily because of that president's being a Democrat and knowing that Truman's increasing "popularity index" could only help him. Truman's limited physical capacity at the time, however, limited actual interaction. The Republican Eisenhower administration was not as interested in a former Democratic president, especially given the animosity between the two men that most likely resulted from Truman's claim that he asked Eisenhower 'first' to run as a Democrat. Most of the relevant records at the Kennedy Library had not been processed.

Since that time, I've visited the Bush 41 Library in College Station and spent some time at the FDR Library when I was researching Eleanor Roosevelt for another project.

Until only recently, the Nixon Library was not part of the NARA Presidential Library system but I did visit Yorba Linda during a National Council for the Social Studies meeting in the late 1980s and also did some work at the Ford Library in Michigan.

At a recent Oral History Association meeting, I visited the Clinton Library and became aware of the vast amounts of emails the Archives staff have to effectively manage. Most striking was the fact that records are being processed according to the specific interests of lawsuits. This approach determined by current laws and policies means that archivists cannot systematically process records in the most efficient way and instead have to fish through a diverse group of records and handle records they can't process according to the dictates of a particular lawsuits, thus violating the "efficient desk" rule of limiting the number of times you touch a piece of paper before you are done with it. And, I still wish that the Clinton had chosen the Fayetteville instead of Little Rock as the home for their library given its closer proximity to my physical location. . . .

Obviously, Hillary Clinton's campaign for the presidency puts a new focus on the activities of post-presidents as well as the functions of their libraries.

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