The pomp and circumstance of archival parchment

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Last week NPR’s Weekend Edition reported on the delay of Queen Elizabeth II’s “Gracious Address” to Parliament, which lays out the government’s agenda.  Low and behold, in this story Melissa Block spoke of vellum and archival parchment!

Block explained that the goatskin parchment used in Britain is actually an archival parchment that contains no goatskin.  According to The Sun, it has kept the name goatskin parchment because it bears a watermark in the shape of a goat.  According to The Telegraph, this high-quality archival paper is guaranteed to last for 500 years.

In reality, the problem is not the goatskin but instead the stunning results from the recent parliamentary election that has left Theresa May’s Conservatives in talks with the Democratic Unionist Party over support for the minority government.  Apparently, a number of versions of the speech were drafted for the Queen, anticipating various coalitions.

This is a somewhat touchy issue for the British — last year, the House of Lords decided to stop printing laws on vellum as a cost-saving measure, but the Cabinet Office came up with the money out of its budget to keep the practice going.  (Vellum is made from calfskin.  And according to a piece from the Worcester Cathedral Library, Parliament has been debating this issue since at least 1999.)  The Digital Preservation Coalition in Britain used the episode as an opportunity to talk about utilizing digital preservation rather than depending on old paper technologies.  (The BBC article I’ve linked points out the typical complications of such work.)

If you want more information, the National Archives has a page about the differences between parchment, vellum, and paper.  And the Worcester Cathedral blog linked above also has a nice history of various writing media.

In the end, talk of parchment got much more attention than the speech did itself!


The legacy of Watergate

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Forty-five years ago today, five men were arrested while wiretapping phones and stealing documents from the offices of the Democratic National Committee, inside the Watergate complex of buildings.  This was actually not their first time breaking into these offices, but when the building’s security guard noticed the locks on several doors had been taped over and called the police, he changed the future of the American presidency.  There is the obvious political consequence that played out over the next two years, culminating in the resignation of President Richard Nixon on August 8, 1974.

But there was also a records impact in this story.  Of course, Nixon fought against the release of the tapes that recorded conversations that took place in the Oval Office.  After the U.S. Supreme Court mandated in 1974 that he turn over the tapes, it was obvious Nixon could not survive the scandal.   After he left office, he negotiated an agreement with General Services Administrator Arthur Sampson to donate his papers to a presidential library, with the understanding that Nixon could destroy the White House tapes within ten years.  As a result of this, Congress passed the 1974 Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, which required Nixon’s presidential materials to be kept in the Washington, DC, area.  In 2007, these records became a part of the National Archives system and were integrated into his presidential library.

Through the presidency of Jimmy Carter, the legal interpretation was that the records of the President belonged to the person, not the office.  The 1978 Presidential Records Act (PRA) changed the legal ownership of the official records of the President from private to public.  It also defined “Presidential records” as

“documentary materials, or any reasonably segregable portion thereof, created or received by the President, the President’s immediate staff, or a unit or individual of the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise or assist the President, in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.”

This legislation went into effect for the Reagan and all subsequent administrations.  All previous presidents since Hoover — Nixon excepted — voluntarily donated their papers to their presidential library.

The 1978 PRA has been in the news recently with Congressman Mike Quigley’s proposal of the COVFEFE Act — Communications Over Various Feeds Electronically for Engagement.  He has suggested that tweets from President Trump’s private Twitter account should be preserved as presidential records alongside those from the official @POTUS account.  What makes the PRA interesting is that it vests the President, not the Archivist of the United States, with the authority to determine which records are presidential records and which are personal records.  AOTUS David Ferriero laid out the practicalities of the PRA in his March 2017 response to queries from Senators McCaskill and Carper.

Obama presidential library — make that center

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The Obama Presidential Library has been in the news lately.  Last month, they announced a different model for this library — outside of the presidential library network of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).  Rather than using a lot of real estate to house paper records, they intend to store presidential records and artifacts in existing NARA facilities and provide access to nonclassified documents online (after the 5-year embargo required by the Presidential Records Act).  Archivist of the U.S. David Ferriero explained in an interview for the National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators that most of the Obama administration’s documents were born digital, so this transition away from the model of housing records onsite makes sense.

This addresses one of the criticisms I wrote about years ago from people like Benjamin Hufbauer — by removing the taxpayer support of entities that glorify former presidents.  This also frees up the Obama Presidential Center to use space for an auditorium/forum and for a recording studio.  Like the other presidential libraries, there will be a museum, where they can exhibit artifacts borrowed from NARA.  It also gives more flexibility to the Obama Foundation, which would have been required under a 2008 law to have an endowment equal to 60% of the cost of the library portion of the center (where his most recent predecessors needed to reach only a 20% threshold).

When he unveiled the plans, Obama spoke of the new center as a “hub” for the community, reminiscent of his organizing days in Chicago:

“What we want this to be is the world’s premier institution for training young people in leadership to make a difference in their countries, in their communities and in the world.”

Louise Bernard was named museum director for the center — another sign the emphasis for this facility will not be on presidential records.  (I may be reading too much into this, but when SAA president-elect Meredith Evans was chosen in 2014, her title is director of the Carter Presidential Library and Museum.)

What remains to be seen is how this will impact NARA.  My understanding from other recent presidential libraries is that the records are processed as needed to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.  I wonder if NARA has the staff needed to handle these requests for the Obama records.  I guess AOTUS has until 2022 to get that worked out!

The future of presidential correspondence

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I have long been intrigued by the letters people write to U.S. presidents.  The National Archives and National Geographic Society published a volume in 2005 that presents 87 letters written to presidents all the way from George Washington to Bill Clinton entitled Dear Mr. President: Letters to the Oval Office.  The letters are arranged topically and include missives from young children as well as letters from well-known personalities — some of whom were well-known at the time they wrote the letter (e.g., John Steinbeck, who wrote to LBJ; Elvis Presley, who wrote to Nixon) and others who later became famous (e.g., Fidel Castro, who wrote to FDR).  Letters from children are always of interest, and a 2004 article in NARA’s Prologue magazine highlights these letters.  (See also the activity page created by the Smithsonian.)  Last year on his blog, current Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, wrote about the letters children created while participating in a sleepover at the National Archives — and how they seemed to recognize the gravity of the situation and reflected carefully before crafting their letters.  Many of the letters written to earlier presidents are housed at the Library of Congress, while those from Hebert Hoover through Barack Obama are held by the National Archives and Records Administration within the presidential library system.

In the foreword to this book, Allen Weinstein (who was then Archivist of the United States) wrote:

“Letters may be mundane, or memorable, personal accounts of our lives at a moment in time.  They become noteworthy in a different way when written to public figures, especially Presidents of the United States.  Without question, it requires special motivation to sit down and write: ‘Dear Mr. President.’  This salutation means we have something important to say, and we expect the most powerful person on earth to pay attention to our concerns” (12).

In the introduction, Brian Williams recounts his work in 1979 as an intern in the Office of Presidential Correspondence.  He himself wrote a letter to LBJ in 1966, and now he was on the receiving end:

“I was opening someone’s precious letter to the President.  Some sent along pictures.  Some expressed their dreams, some spewed their anger . . . all of them wrote to the President empowered by a sacred right of citizenship as old as the Republic itself” (17).

The form of correspondence to presidents has changed over the years — from longhand cursive letters delivered by horse and rider to cables and telegrams to typed letters to faxes to email.  Now in February, NBC News challenged people to communicate with President Trump via Twitter:

A lot remains to be evaluated about the impacts of these later forms of communication with presidents, especially email and tweets.  I just hope the ease with which these missives can be sent doesn’t negate the needed reflection and gravity.  I hope the discourse continues to reflect the efforts of people to exercise their rights of citizenship — and in the process creates noteworthy evidence of the office of the presidency and its impact on the American people.  We owe that to the historians of the next generation.