“The Messy Business of Remembering: History, Memory, and Archives”

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Mark Greene made a relatively early attempt to relate postmodernism to archival work.  In a 2003-2004 issue of Archival Issues, Greene wrote about “The Messy Business of Remembering; History, Memory, and Archives.”  He explained archivists were somewhat late to the game to begin discussing postmodernism because of the trend away from allying with historians (who’d been considering postmodernism for some time) and more towards information science.

Although this may in fact defeat the purpose of discussing postmodernism, for reference, here’s a definition from PBS:

“Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality.  In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality.  For this reason, postmodernism is highly skeptical of explanations which claim to be valid for all groups, cultures, traditions, or races, and instead focuses on the relative truths of each person.”

Greene contended that postmodernism is relevant to archivists in everything from acquisition choices to the legitimacy of uses of archives.  He used as a springboard for his analysis a 2002 article by an Amherst historian that presented a positivist view of historical research.  Where positivism asserts that “‘history is what trained historians do'” (96), Greene countered:

“Neither truth nor history nor even memory should be the secret of the few.  If we do it right–and as archivists we have something to say about that because it depends in some part on how we solicit, welcome, and assist both historians and genealogists in our reading rooms–everyone can play a part” (97).

So where some contend that historical uses of archival records are more important than those relating to social memory, Greene painted a more inclusive picture of archival use.  He incorporated the analysis of management and business design expert Chauncey Bell about what the job of  an archivist should be:

“‘your job is not about storing and sorting information.  It is about appraising and keeping records of history-making events and the acts spoken by history makers, and doing that in a way that allows you to be effective partners for those history makers in their re-membering of the past'” (99-100).

Greene also looked to the words of psychiatrist W. Walter Menninger for an explanation of history:

“‘history is a record of present beliefs and wishes, not a replica of the past.  Remembering . . . is a reconstruction using bits of past experience to describe a present state'” (100).

Rejecting the notion of archivists merely as gatekeepers, Greene asserted that archivists cannot claim the neutrality of archival records because “Both the creation and the selection of archival material are tainted, if you will, by the values, missions, and even resources of the creators and the archivists” (101).  Not only do individuals and societies create and shape history and memory, but so do archivists.  He also pointed out that the ownership of history, memory, and the records that shape them — both literal and figurative ownership — is a challenge archivists have yet to resolve.  He concluded that dealing with these complications can be solved only with humility and courage.

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“Appraising Public Records in an Ahistorical Culture”

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Although in a records management sense this article is dated, I can’t pass up the opportunity to review something entitled “Plowing the Sea: Appraising Public Records in an Ahistorical Culture.”  Roy Turnbaugh, who at the time this article was published in 1990 was the state archivist of Oregon, had some bold opinions about public records and archival work.

He began with a simple premise:

“Public records archivists work in a culture without a sense if history.  Government cares little about yesterday.  It functions in a kind of existential present” (563).

Based on a study he conducted in the mid-1980s, he concluded there was little that could be considered standard practice in the appraisal of state government records.  Some of his respondents prioritized informational value while others appraised based on evidential value; some sought to protect the rights of the state and its citizens while others focused on possible historical research.

Turnbaugh clearly disdained the use of any appraisal criteria that considered potential users.  He referred to the scholarly research community as “at best a marginal constituency” for state archives (564).  His simple answer to the problem of appraisal was that state archives “exist to make sure that the records of the significant actions of government are preserved” (565).

As someone who spent his career in state archives in Illinois and Oregon, Turnbaugh expressed a marked cynicism about government.  I find myself wondering if his analysis of public records wasn’t influenced by this mistrust of government in general.  I’ve documented in many SAA presidential addresses the schism between archivists and records managers (see Radoff, Grover), but I believe there’s a lot we can learn from each other.

To me, the bigger difference for government archivists and manuscript archivists is in the records creators.  Many donors to manuscript collections have developed a sense of self-importance that likely shapes many of their documents.  On the other hand, many government employees have a very siloed approach to their work that prevents them from seeing the big picture of how their records contribute to the overall functions of their agency.  Without this, these employees are unlikely to recognize the potential value of their records.

Here are the intersections between archival and records management work that I think are especially important for government records (or really any sort of institutional records):

  • Essential records.  The Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines essential records as “emergency-operating records immediately necessary to begin recovery of operations after a disaster, and rights-and-interests records necessary to protect the assets, obligations, and resources of the organization, as well as its employees and customers or citizens.”  Although not all essential records (e.g., payroll records) would be considered archival, from the standpoint of identifying and protecting vital records, this is still an important conversation for government archivists to have with records creators.
  • Institutional memory.  Any institution that is subject to employee turnover should care about institutional memory so that each successive generation of employees doesn’t wind up reinventing the wheel.  Good records management can help accomplish this — and in the long run, these records could likely provide the long-term context necessary for archival researchers investigating an institution.
  • Business planning.  As Lord Byron said, “The best of prophets of the future is the past.”  So for any institution that is in a planning stage, seeking out the records of the past can aid in figuring out what has worked well and what has failed dramatically.  And these documentations of successes and failures could be useful archival collections.

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.

Stephen Skowronek: Presidential Leadership in Political Time

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Listening to Jon Meacham made me want to review Stephen Skowronek’s book that I read a number of years ago for a workshop.  Skowronek combined and revised five individually presented essays (written from the early 1980s to 2006) into this 2008 volume entitled Presidential Leadership in Political Time.  His basic thesis about political time reduces personality and style as secondary factors in defining a presidency and rather focuses the study of presidential leadership on “what its capacities are and how it operates in political circumstances variously configured” (xi).  While Presidents obviously exist in different historical times, Skowronek argues there are parallel moments in political time, which he defines as:

“the medium through which presidents encounter received commitments of ideology and interests and claim authority to intervene in their development.  Political time has a narrative structure.  Presidents bid for authority by reckoning with the work of their predecessors, locating their rise to power within the recent course of political events, and addressing the political expectations that attend their intervention in these affairs” (18).

Skowronek also explains in this first chapter of the book (“The Presidency in American Political Development: A Third Look”) that there have been numerous attempts to study the presidency in American political development:

  1. During the Progressive era around the turn of the 20th century, people looked to the presidency as the branch of the federal government best suited to serve the needs of the people.
  2. In the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate investigations, scholars began identifying the modern presidency as the “imperial presidency” (a phrase first used by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.).  This period of disillusionment swung the pendulum back to Congress as the body most capable of reining in excessive power and moving the democracy forward.
  3. Skowronek’s third look at the presidency takes this form:

“It attends to the peculiar ways in which the presidency operates politically, to the different sorts of political contests it sets up over time, and to their typical political effects.  It offers thereby some insight into the sequence of political change unfolding in our time” (5).

The third essay (“The Politics of Leadership at the End of the Twentieth Century”) provides an analysis of the structures of political authority.  Skowronek identified the political configurations of these structures based on whether the president is affiliated with or opposed to the “dominant ideological and programmatic commitments of the era” and whether the commitments of the regime at the time of the president’s rise to power are vulnerable or continue to hold out “credible solutions to the problems of the day” (85).

Among recent presidents, Skowronek identified Jimmy Carter for the politics of disjunction, Ronald Reagan for the politics of reconstruction, George H.W. Bush for the politics of articulation, and Bill Clinton for the politics of preemption.

  • Affiliation with a vulnerable regime leads to an “impossible leadership situation” because the president can neither repudiate nor embrace their political inheritance, thereby tending “to plunge the nation deep into a crisis of political legitimacy” (90).
  • Candidates who oppose vulnerable incumbents set themselves up for what Skowronek identifies as “the situation that has traditionally proven the most favorable to political mastery in the American presidency” (93).  These are the great repudiators.
  • Presidents who come to power affiliated with a resilient regime tend to become orthodox innovators, “pledged to continue work on an agenda that was his rightful inheritance” (99).
  • Preemptive leaders “are far less beholden to their political allies than are orthodox innovators or late-regime affiliates, far less constrained by standards of doctrinal purity or by the expectation of acting in ways consistent with established part priorities.  What sets preemptive leadership apart is just this: It is not designed to establish, uphold, or salvage any political orthodoxy; it is an unabashedly mongrel vision, an aggressive critique of the prevailing categories and a bold bid to mix then up” (106).

 

 

 

Jon Meacham: What History Tells Us About the Future

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I had the opportunity this week to hear Jon Meacham deliver a lecture at the North Carolina Museum of History.  He won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson, and he has also profiled FDR and Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, and George Herbert Walker Bush.

In his lecture, Meacham identified four characteristics of great political leaders:

  • Curiosity.  He pointed to presidents such as FDR, JFK, and Jefferson as avid readers and intellectually curious leaders.  Look no further than Jefferson’s study of Enlightenment thought and its incorporation into American political life.
  • Candor.  He looked to the Great Depression and World War Two for leaders who were willing to talk to their constituents about the gravity of the situation without sugar-coating it.  FDR referred to it as shooting straight-from-the-shoulder, and Churchill certainly followed this pattern in handling the devastation of attacks on the British Isles.
  • Humility.  Great leaders have the ability to admit their mistakes and learn from them — despite the “ambient narcissism” that is a part of the political process.  Meacham pointed to JFK, who after the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs contacted Eisenhower for guidance and by following his advice charted a positive end to the subsequent Cuban missile crisis.
  • Empathy.  Meacham argued that empathy doesn’t have to be the Bill Clinton “I feel your pain” kind of understanding.  He explained George H.W. Bush demonstrated empathy at the end of the Cold War by not using the collapse of the Berlin Wall as a photo opportunity that would help him politically while also being quite damaging to Mikhail Gorbachev, who was in a tenuous position with the hardliners in the Communist party.

Ultimately, Meacham believes that “character is destiny.”  But that’s not to say he prefers studying only great people — instead, he suggested we can learn more from the sinners than the saints.  His closing words of hope were, “We can move forward.”  He reflected on the founding of our nation by flawed people — many of whom were slaveowners, for instance — but yet they came together to form a more perfect union.  To those who might question his highlighting of flaws, he countered that overly romanticizing the past actually does an injustice to those you mean to lionize.

Meacham explained his tests for determining the worth of studying a particular subject:

  • Is there a hole in the popular conversation about this person?
  • Is there a scholarly argument to make?
  • Are there new materials to be studied?  (Here’s how archivists can help the Meachams of the world!)

Meacham referenced the open letter he wrote to President Trump before his visit to the Hermitage in March.  Because Trump is fond of likening his leadership to that of Jackson, Meacham pointed out some of his traits that Trump would be wise to emulate:

  • Jackson valued the advice of people with experience in governmental and military affairs.
  • Despite his dislike of elements of the national government (e.g., the Second National Bank), Jackson believed our democratic system had to be preserved at all costs.  This meant both compromising on certain issues and also directly courting the understanding and support of his most ardent opposition (the nullifiers in South Carolina).

In his talk, Meacham also explained that Jackson always fired the second shot — never being the one to begin an attack and instead being in a perfect position to respond.  Jackson also understood his own vices (see humility above).

 

Don’t forget about Clay

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For some reason this week I feel compelled to turn to the pages of history.  While some have suggested that Andrew Jackson was the key to preventing the American Civil War, I would like to throw the name of his contemporary Henry Clay into the ring.  Clay spent decades in service to the federal government in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and as Secretary of State under President John Quincy Adams.  He earned the nickname of the Great Compromiser due to his involvement with three agreements that postponed the Civil War:

  • Missouri Compromise: brought Maine into the Union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, with the rest of the Louisiana Territory below the 36°30′ line open to slavery
  • Compromise of 1833: resolved the nullification crisis begun when South Carolina defied the federal tariff by gradually reducing the tariff rates to prevent its secession
  • Compromise of 1850: adeptly ushered a set of 5 bills through Congress by breaking up the omnibus bill and instead getting each section to vote in favor of the elements they supported, thereby getting the entire package enacted:
    • California entered the Union as a free state
    • established popular sovereignty for the remaining territory won during the Mexican War, meaning the residents would be able to determine whether the territories would practice slavery
    • the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia
    • resolved the borders of Texas and the federal government took over its debt
    • enacted a more stringent Fugitive Slave Act to counteract the work of abolitionists who had been helping slaves escape to the North

In his February 5-6 speeches to garner support for the Compromise of 1850, Clay concluded with these words, captured in the Appendix to the Congressional Globe:

“I conjure gentlemen–whether from the South or the North, by all they hold dear in this world–by all their love of liberty–by all their veneration for their ancestors–by all their regard for posterity–by all their gratitude to Him who has bestowed upon them such unnumbered blessings–by all the duties they owe to themselves–by all these consideration I implore them to pause–solemnly to pause–at the edge of the precipice, before the fearful and disastrous leap is taken in the yawning abyss below, which will inevitably lead to certain and irretrievable destruction.

“. . . I implore, as the best blessing which Heaven can bestow upon me upon earth, that if the direful and sad event of the dissolution of the Union shall happen, I may not survive to behold the sad and heart-rending spectacle.”

Henry Clay died in June 1852.

For his part, here are some of the actions and events that shaped the uneven legacy of Andrew Jackson:

  • Fought against the Creek Indians in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend
  • Defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812
  • Invaded Spanish Florida and fought against the Seminole Indians
  • Owned slaves on his Tennessee plantation the Hermitage
  • Advocated for the power of the “common man” in politics
  • Vetoed the recharter of the Second Bank of the U.S. as a means of fighting economic privilege
  • Authorized the Indian Removal Act
  • Refused to enforce the U.S. Supreme Court decision (Worcester v. Georgia) that denied Georgia authority over tribal lands belonging the Cherokee
  • The combination of the prior two actions set the stage for the forced removal of Cherokees to the west of the Mississippi River that became known as the Trail of Tears after more than a quarter of the Cherokee population died during this journey.

Jackson died in June 1845.

The Civil War began in April 1861.

“Archival Odyssey: Taking Students to the Sources”

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I decided to take Darin Waters‘ advice and read John Hope Franklin’s 1969 article published in the American Archivist entitled “Archival Odyssey: Taking Students to the Sources.”  Franklin read this paper at a joint luncheon of the American Historical Association and the Society of American Archivists that took place in New York in December 1968.

At the time, Franklin was chair of the history department at the University of Chicago.  A few years earlier, he’d met with the director of the South Carolina Archives, Charles Lee, who posed a simple question (376):

“Why have your students engage in a tug of war over two or three pages of manuscripts, perhaps one newspaper, and Appleton’s Annual Cyclopadia as they attempt to write seminar papers up there in Chicago, when each of them could have his own wall of manuscripts down here.”

Franklin convinced his university to help defray the costs for his graduate students, and they spent 2 weeks in early 1967 researching Reconstruction at the State Archives of North Carolina along with the nearby manuscript repositories at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The graduate students read all the relevant secondary sources and defined their research topics before they arrived in Raleigh, and the staff of the State Archives researched the relevant materials in their collection.  The staff and students met frequently while they were in Raleigh to share insights on materials, problems, sources, and approaches.  In addition to the knowledge and materials the students gained, Franklin explained that the greatest benefit of this experience was in the confidence they developed.  Franklin concluded (380):

“the opportunity afforded the students of going ‘beyond the water’s edge’ to confront significant materials that formed the bases for meaningful and even important papers was worth every effort that was put into the undertaking.”

I hope archival repositories never lose sight of the need to cultivate such relationships so we can continue leading students “beyond the water’s edge.”

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