Archival Principles: Access

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block AThe SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines access as:

1. The ability to locate relevant information through the use of catalogs, indexes, finding aids, or other tools.

2. The permission to locate and retrieve information for use (consultation or reference) within legally established restrictions of privacy, confidentiality, and security clearance.

There are occasional exceptions to the rule, but I generally argue that if materials warrant archival preservation, they need to be made accessible.  The arrangement process I described last week helps facilitate access to archival records by identifying their content and other elements and concisely recording this information in a finding aid or other research aid.  Unfortunately, thoughts about access don’t always seem to bear on decisions about accessioning or preserving materials.  In researching my master’s paper, I found particularly with born-digital materials a lack of planning about how electronic materials will be made accessible to researchers.

Traditionally, access to archival records has been provided to researchers who come to the reading rooms of archival repositories.  Occasionally, remote researchers would request materials be microfilmed for their review off-site.  Increasingly, the researcher’s impulse to “let me Google that” is leading repositories to consider digitizing materials to make them available for online access.

There are certainly advantages to providing remote access to digital copies of archival materials.  For one, doing so removes some of the stumbling blocks that researchers unfamiliar with archival practices and protocols face when visiting a reading room for the first time.  It can also broaden the reach of your repository to those who may never be able to darken the door.

But there are also accompanying disadvantages.  Items that are put online can often be discovered by search engine rather than by navigating through a finding aid on the archives website.  Archives are increasingly thinking about the metadata they associate with files to enhance this discoverability, but making it easier for people to Google materials means they may miss out on the context of the rest of the collection in which the particular document or picture is located.  Without any personal interactions with an archivist, the researcher may also miss out on advice about other related materials.

The other issue repositories must address if they want to provide online access — and which can become a disadvantage if it’s ignored — is what’s the plan for accomplishing this?

  • What should be digitized — individual items that are requested? entire collections that are heavily researched? everything?
  • Can the scanning be handled in-house or will it need to be outsourced?
  • Does the repository have a collection management system that can provide the technological infrastructure necessary to upload digital assets to the World Wide Web?

Much more could be written about this, but for now I’ll conclude by saying that scanning materials in a haphazard will only create headaches both in the short-term and definitely in the long-term.

One final issue that has become more contentious in the era of online access is the appropriate role/responsibility of the archival repository in protecting the privacy and confidentiality of the donors and the subjects of the archival materials.  When these materials were only available under restricted conditions within archival reading rooms, many donors didn’t think too carefully about the ramifications of the materials being publicly accessible.  But now even with yearbooks and college newspapers and other materials that were clearly public at the time of their publication are appearing with increasing regularity among digital collections, more and more people are embracing the idea long common in Europe of the right to be forgotten — and archival repositories are left to figure out how to handle take-down requests.

Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to be done in the realm of archival access.


JFK Assassination Records Collection

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The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act was passed by Congress in 1992.  It had two purposes:

  1. “to provide for the creation of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection at the National Archives and
    Records Administration; and
  2. “to require the expeditious public transmission to the Archivist and public disclosure of such records.”

It required all assassination records to be publicly disclosed within 25 years after this act, unless the President certified:

  1. “continued postponement is made necessary by an identifiable harm to the military defense, intelligence operations, law enforcement, or conduct of foreign relations; and
  2. “the identifiable harm is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in disclosure.”

In keeping with this requirement, the National Archives has released five batches of documents this year:

  • July 24: 3,810 records
  • October 26: 2,891 records
  • November 3: 676 records
  • November 9: 13,213 records
  • November 17: 10,744 records

By all means, I’m in favor of transparency.  But what fascinates me about this legislation in the first place is that Congress took it upon itself to tell archivists how to do our job.  This act required the creation of an artificial collection that pulls records from all of these entities:

  • (A) the Commission to Investigate the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (the “Warren Commission”);
  • (B) the Commission on Central Intelligence Agency Activities Within the United States (the “Rockefeller Commission”);
  • (C) the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (the “Church Committee”);
  • (D) the Select Committee on Intelligence (the “Pike Committee”) of the House of Representatives;
  • (E) the Select Committee on Assassinations (the “House Assassinations Committee”) of the House of Representatives;
  • (F) the Library of Congress;
  • (G) the National Archives and Records Administration;
  • (H) any Presidential library;
  • (I) any Executive agency;
  • (J) any independent agency;
  • (K) any other office of the Federal Government; and
  • (L) any State or local law enforcement office that provided support or assistance or performed work in connection with a Federal inquiry into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but does not include the autopsy records donated by the Kennedy family to the National Archives pursuant to a deed of gift regulating access to those records, or copies and reproductions made from such records.

So much for original order!  I’m not sure how long it took to gather these documents, but the only finding aid I see on NARA’s site indicates records were compiled from 1992-1998 (although it also acknowledges the collection will grow as more materials are transferred to NARA).

“Facts and Frameworks: An Approach to Studying the Users of Archives”

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I’ve previously expressed my interest in archival access, so this week I turn to one of the cornerstones in this field.  Paul Conway published this article in the Fall 1986 issue of the American Archivist.  Conway was an archivist at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library (1977-87), a Preservation Program Officer for the Society of American Archivists (SAA, 1987-89), and worked at the National Archive and Records Administration (1990-92).  He led the Preservation Department at Yale University Library (1992-2001) and the executive management group of the Duke University Libraries (2001-6).  Since September 2006, Conway has been Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information.

Conway began by pointing to Goal III in the 1986 report from the SAA Task Force on Goals and Priorities: “‘Use of archival records is the ultimate purpose of identification and administration’” (394).  He asserted that in order to assist users, archivists need to interact with users in order “to identify the most immediate groups of beneficiaries of archival information and begin to understand the process of information transfer within and beyond the archives” (395).  He noted that use encompasses not only the physical use that occurs in reference rooms but also the usefulness of the information to society in general.

There are three objectives in Conway’s framework:

  • quality — How good are the services?

Evaluating quality requires understanding the researcher’s task, research capabilities and strategies, and expectations and satisfaction.  Ultimately, the goal is to “enhance access to useful information” (399).

  • integrity — How good is the protection of archival information?

Integrity is a wide-ranging element of the framework because it includes not only trying to provide adequate access to information but also balancing the need to protect and preserve the archival materials.  Conway encouraged assessing how researchers discover available information as well as looking at various alternatives to the physical use of original records (e.g., microforms or databases).

  • value — What good do the services do?

Evaluating value requires understanding how researchers intend to use archival information and how it relates to other sources of information.

Conway identified five opportunities for archivists to gather information from users:

  1. registration
  2. orientation
  3. follow up
  4. survey
  5. experiments

Not only does information need to be gathered from users, but the data also must be analyzed.  Although the orientation interview seems to be going away with the increasing remote usage of archival resources, repositories can still create opportunities to evaluate quality, integrity, and value for remote users.  Conway concluded, “Making the reference room rather than the loading dock the hub of archival activity requires facts about users – recorded facts, shared facts, but most of all facts organized for clear objectives” (407).

“Building Our Own ‘Iron Curtain’: The Emergence of Secrecy in American Government”

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Timothy L. Ericson presented his presidential address at the 2004 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Boston, Massachusetts.  Ericson was university archivist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (1989-2005), Georgia Archives Institute instructor (2005-2011), interim university archivist at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (2009-2010), commissioner for the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (2009-2013), and senior lecturer emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Information Studies (2005-present).  His personal papers are housed at the University of Wisconsin.  The full version of this article was published in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of the American Archivist.  (An abbreviated “reading version” of the address is also available on the SAA website.)

Ericson began with a clear argument: “today the tilt toward secrecy permeates our entire system of government from the White House to the local school board” (18).  He provided numerous relatively contemporary examples of government secrecy and then launched into a very thorough analysis of “the history of our secrecy apparatus,” which he divided into three eras and asserted is primarily a long history of lurching from one crisis to another, responding in a panicked fashion (22).


Secrecy began with the First Continental Congress as an effort to portray unity (and perhaps limit the charges of treason if things didn’t turn out well!).  Then in 1784 Congress “ruled that all diplomatic correspondence was automatically considered secret” (25).  A Frenchman who visited the United States during the 1830s surmised that Americans had very little interest in public documents — Alexis de Tocqueville was actually frequently given original documents to answer his questions.  He described American society as one living “from hand to mouth, like an army in the field” (28).


The British introduced a formal classification system during the Crimean War, and the United States adopted our first one during World War One, outlining “in considerable detail the levels of secrecy, marking classified documents, storage of such documents, and who would have access to classified material” (33).  In between World War One and World War Two, the U.S. covered nondefense information under the classifications, introduced the terms “national security” and “reclassification” (i.e., “the process of lowering the classification of a document and prohibited revealing information ‘about the contents of classified documents . . . in any other document unless that document was marked with the same or higher classification'” [35-36]), and allowed for information to be classified if it might be harmful to the “‘prestige of the Nation'” (36).


This final era was punctuated by executive orders that provided additional parameters to national security interests and governmental transparency exceptions.  Under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, the three levels of classification were established — secret, confidential, and restricted.  The 1946 Atomic Energy Act introduced the term “born classified.”  Truman added the level “Top Secret” in 1950.  The number of federal employees who exercised the authority to classify information ranged from 3,000 – 60,000 during this era.  Under Jimmy Carter a “balancing test” was introduced that “weighed the public’s right to know against the government’s need to protect national security” — but this was rescinded under Reagan (41).  This same executive order also established the Information Security Oversight Office (ISOO) at the National Archives.

This era was not devoid of progress regarding access to public records.  The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1966 and signed by Lyndon B. Johnson.  Ericson uncovered a gem from the congressional debate on this bill, quoting a young congressman from Illinois who said, “‘public records, which are evidence of official government action, are public property, and there . . . should be a positive obligation to disclose this information upon request'” (43).  This congressman was Donald Rumsfeld.

I’ve provided a very truncated summary of the history of these eras, so I encourage you to read Ericson’s work in toto.  But two key things stand out to me about these eras:

  1. The preponderance of limitations on government accountability occurred during times of war (so long as you consider the Cold War as a very long era of wartime attitude — and since Ericson uses a Cold War metaphor in his title, I think it’s an appropriate conclusion).  Supreme Court Justice William Brennan recognized “’the unfortunate American tendency to panic in the face of national crisis and to countenance infringements of civil liberties that would appear intolerable during times of repose’” (26).
  2. We haven’t gotten much better about planning ahead than we were in the 1830s when de Tocqueville visited.  At least we do now have a National Archives, but it took us almost 150 years longer than it took the French!  And we didn’t even develop a system for numbering executive orders until the early 20th century.

Ericson summarized that this “secrecy apparatus” has stoked rivalries between government agencies that use secrets as “currency,” ultimately leading to “ill-informed decisions” (44).  (As an historical note: The 9/11 Commission Report, which documented such situations, was published on July 22, 2004, two weeks before Ericson’s address was delivered at the SAA meeting.)  He also asserted the unnecessarily “bloated” system racks up huge costs (45).  He concluded that secrecy in government “serves the interests of politics, malfeasance, misdeeds, and potential embarrassment more than our national security” (50).  He contended that this situation has occurred “because of the casual attitude Americans have taken with regard to the growing trend toward secrecy—but also because of the lackadaisical attitude that the archival profession has taken” (51).

Ericson questioned the appropriate response of archivists to such efforts at secrecy, challenging, “Why have we not been more zealous in embracing our ethical responsibility to ‘discourage unreasonable restrictions on access’ with respect to government records that are being unreasonably restricted by the millions?” (21).  He cited SAA’s 1986 Task Force on Goals and Priorities along with the work of fellow archivists Mary Jo Pugh, F. Gerald Ham, and James O’Toole for evidence that archivists should advocate for fewer restrictions.

Ericson concluded there are four steps archivists should take:

  1. Educate ourselves.  At professional meetings, in newsletters and journals, and in archival courses, we need to talk about government secrecy and accountability.
  2. Create formal working relationships with other organizations who have a vested interest in government accountability.  Ericson pointed to the American Civil Liberties Union, ISOO, the National Security Archive, OMB Watch, Public Citizen, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Federation of American Scientists.
  3. Take action as individual archivists.  Ericson acknowledged that archivists frequently make decisions about providing or denying access to records, so we need to use our experience and “become advocates for open records and speak out against abuses” (52).
  4. Position ourselves as outspoken activists.  Ericson suggested we should “make activism a priority and position ourselves as a profession that really is interested in and knowledgeable about issues such as access to government records and their value to maintaining our civil liberties” (52).

In its 1988 resolution that served as an official apology for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, Congress concluded that Executive Order 9066 “‘was motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership'” (39).  May the archival community take up Ericson’s challenge and act in ways that our leadership cannot be so questioned.

“Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic: Speculations on Change in Research Processes”

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Trudy H. Peterson delivered her presidential address at the 1991 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  She worked at the National Archives (NARA) from 1968-95 and was assistant archivist at the time of this address.  After retiring from NARA, she served as the founding Executive Director of the Open Society Archives in Budapest, Hungary (1995-98) and then as director of Archives and Records Management for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1999-2002).  Since 2002, she has worked as a consulting archivist.  This address was published in the Summer 1992 issue of the American Archivist.

Peterson’s basic premise was that reading, writing, and arithmetic had changed so dramatically during the 20th century that research and reference services at archives would be bound to change in the 21st century.  She first identified the reasons why people read – most importantly for archives, people read to gain information.  She acknowledged how the technological developments of the 20th century, including telephones and television, made people more likely to gain information through oral avenues rather than written ones and cited results from SAT examinations as evidence that Americans were becoming less proficient in reading and writing.  As for the impact of this trend on archives, she suggested it would be different for archives typically with an elite clientele – such as manuscript collections, business archives, and presidential libraries.  While these users would tend to be good readers, she asserted they would also be well-versed in using computers and would demand “direct random access rather than the slow, sequential access of the typical written finding aid” (416).  As for public archives, she explained that archives are already intimidating institutions for the casual user, and if reading is the only avenue to service, this problem will increase.  Unrelated to reading ability, Peterson suggested there would be an increasing number of users seeking nontextual materials who would be frustrated by having to navigate written devices to find nontextual materials.  Finally, she recognized that an increasing percentage of the American population comes to English as a second language, which obviously makes written finding aids a cumbersome way to access archival collections.  Unfortunately, these criticisms of finding aids have not been addressed in any comprehensive way.

Peterson identified three main purposes for writing (417):

  • “to transmit information accurately over space and over time”
  • to manage “very large entities . . . organizations that are so large that a single individual cannot hold in the mind all the details required for effective administration”
  • to aid “in logical thinking . . . by fixing a random placement of thought with the possibility of retrieving and reviewing ideas forgotten or incompletely realized and subsequently ordering them into a logical pattern”

Yet she also pointed to a decline in the ability or inclination to write, suggesting this might influence archives with a preference by users to submit inquiries orally rather than in written form.  She asserted that written inquiries tend to be more precise and carefully thought out, whereas oral inquiries would likely require greater attention by archival staff to clarify the purpose of research.

Peterson cited some appalling statistics about the proficiency of Americans regarding arithmetic but suggested this deficiency should have a somewhat limited impact on archives.  Specifically, she believed archives would find their “capacities to provide manipulation and duplication services may come under pressure as more data sets find homes in the archives” (418).  With the rise of digital humanities, this prediction certainly seems to be coming true.

Peterson suggested four possible impacts on archives because of this changing user base:

  1. Archives might do nothing differently, despite people’s difficulties in accessing archival materials.  But as she eloquently pointed out, this would fly in the face of “the great democratic ideals that are the foundations of the public archival institutions” (418).
  2. The necessity of more mediation between the user and the documents would lead to more professional researchers who could travel comfortably in archival waters on behalf of others.
  3. Mediators may develop to translate archival description for the masses.  Peterson suggested this could come from commercial services or other professionals, such as librarians.
  4. Archives could become mediators themselves, either by providing “assistance in negotiating finding aids” or by providing “information from the documents – not just information about the documents” (419).

To elaborate on the last possibility, Peterson suggested that archival finding aids need to be more “user-driven” and should incorporate signs and symbols as a means of providing users with “easy, logical search paths” (419).  As for archives providing a different kind of service, she made an interesting distinction between reference service and research service.  Acknowledging that providing research services would require a greater concentration of personnel, then the question becomes when is reference service sufficient and when is research service necessary?  Peterson posed the following questions:

“What is the responsibility of the archives in a case where a person’s rights and benefits may be involved?  And if an archives will provide research service in a benefits case, will an archives also provide it in a personal-interest case?  Can we afford to provide this service?  In a political system where power comes from the people, can we afford not to?” (419)

Peterson concluded with this challenge for archivists:

“Let us remember that we hold information that our fellow citizens crave.  Let us remember that we hold it in trust.  And then let us find ways, make ways, create ways, to deliver it to the democratic whole of the men and women and children who depend upon us” (419).

“A Becoming Regard to Posterity”

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Elizabeth Hamer Kegan delivered her presidential address at the 1976 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Washington, D.C.  She held positions both at the National Archives and then at the Library of Congress where she applied her abilities in editing and in organizing exhibitions.  Her talents were prominently displayed with the Library’s American Revolution Bicentennial Program.  Her presidential address was published in the January 1977 issue of the American Archivist.  She died in March 1979.

Kegan’s presidential address was shaped by her commitment to collecting and publishing archival documents — as well as by the 1976 bicentennial celebration.  She commented extensively on the anecdotes and analyses of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison.  And just as her husband had in SAA presidential address, she cited the letter from Jefferson to Ebenezer Hazard in which he lent his support to the publication of records from the Revolutionary era.  (Her title also comes from Hazard.)  Echoing Hamer’s speech from 15 years earlier, Kegan credited the National Historical Publications Commission with “the renaissance of documentary historical publication” in the mid-20th century (9).  She highlighted the shortcomings of microfilm as compared to documentary publications, pointing out the need for targets, descriptive notes, and indexing in order for a reel to be useful — and with this amount of effort invested, the work might as well be published in an easier-to-read format.  She contended that the value of documentary publication projects lay in their efforts to amass information from a variety of sources, thereby creating “an entirely new resource for research” (10).  She also cited a letter written by Julian P. Boyd, the editor  of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, to Paul Smith, the editor of the Letters of Delegates to Congress, in which Boyd complimented Smith for his work in clarifying the sequence of events on July 4, 1776:

“‘Your discovery is an important one and adds one more proof to the growing accumulation that documentary editing can make contributions to knowledge that cannot be made by other means.  This, of course, does not come about merely because of the assemblage of large masses of records about a man or an institution.  It results from the obligation placed upon the editor to do something that a camera or a computer cannot do: to read, to understand, to probe for
the context, and to make all the necessary correlations'” (12).

Kegan looked at documentary publications as a means of providing greater access to archival materials.  In this context, she asserted that archivists have a duty to “encourage and influence the making and the keeping of an adequate record” (12).  With this in mind, she lamented the IRS tax code that did not provide adequate tax deductions to incentivize individuals to donate personal papers to archival institutions.  This consideration of private papers led her to comment on the situation with the Nixon tapes and papers — where her predecessors had sidestepped the issue, Kegan chronicled the succession of judicial and legislative actions that brought his presidential records under the control of the National Archives.  As a part of the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, signed by President Ford in 1974, the National Study Commission on Records and Documents of Federal Officials was created to consider “the problems relating to the preservation and status, not only of the papers of Presidents but also those of cabinet members, other high-level appointees, as well as Members of Congress, and [make] recommendations to Congress for appropriate legislation” (13).  She listed a number of questions facing this new commission regarding the papers of public officials — especially determining when the papers are evidence of public business and when they are private papers.  The questions she raised about monitoring and disposition still have relevance today, especially given recent revelations about State Department emails.  She concluded, “only out of the complete record can truth and understanding emerge” (14).

“The Archivist and Service”


Clifford K. Shipton delivered his presidential address at the October 1968 meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Ottawa, Canada.  This was the first time the SAA annual meeting was held outside the United States.  His address was published in the January 1969 issue of the American Archivist.  Shipton was Custodian of the Harvard University Archives from 1938-1969 as well as editor of the Sibley Publications of the Massachusetts Historical Society for many decades (authoring such works as Sibley’s Harvard Graduates) and Librarian and Director of the American Antiquarian Society from 1940-1967.

Given my personal interest in delving into how access is provided to archival holdings, I was intrigued by the title of Shipton’s address.  He began with an analysis of the obligation of archivists to secure and make available records needed by historians.  He also compared the relative speed with which American archives usually provided service to researchers, as opposed to the slowness of European archives.  According to this address, providing service to archival materials in this era primarily meant producing microfilm — at a cost of $50 a reel! (an amount that would have the buying power of $346.33 in 2015, according to an inflation calculator).

Shipton went on to recount the mistakes and inefficiencies of many microfilm departments in archives, estimating that about a third of the thousands of reels of microfilm he ordered over the years had to be destroyed due to a variety of problems:

  • duplicated orders because an original order was lost, but after Shipton submitted a new order, the original order was then found and also filled
  • incorrect materials filmed because the institution substituted the closest related item for the “ghost” (i.e., item believed to be but not actually held in the collection) requested by Shipton (7)
  • carelessness by camera operators
  • filming more materials than specifically requested by Shipton

Shipton did not have much to offer in the way of solutions for these inefficiencies.  He acknowledged that it would be untenable to charge researchers more for the service, which would be necessary if quality assurance were to be carried out.  Ultimately, he suggested the camera operators needed to be more attentive to detail.  He also proposed a method of tracking orders within the archive.


The 1969 SAA annual meeting took place in Madison, Wisconsin, but president H.G. Jones did not deliver a standard presidential address, so next week I will review the presidential address delivered by Herman Kahn at the 1970 SAA annual meeting.  According to the summation of the 1969 meeting in the January 1970 American Archivist, Jones explained why he had no formal address and “presented remarks that he characterized as a ‘family conversation around the dinner table’ for ‘soul-searching’ purposes” (73).

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