“Selective Preservation of General Correspondence”


Email seems to be the elephant in every archival room.  Figuring out what to keep and how to keep it consumes much time for practitioners and professors alike.  Knowing that email is a relatively new format yet correspondence isn’t a new issue for archives, I looked for wisdom in the literature — but it turns out few people are willing to tackle the correspondence dilemma.  I did find an article by Harold T. Pinkett in the January 1967 issue of the American Archivist.  Pinkett was a senior records appraisal specialist at the National Archives.

As early as the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, there was a recognition of the need to manage the amassing of records.  TR recommended restraint when it came to correspondence, suggesting in the name of efficiency “Government officials create and keep only enough correspondence and other papers required ‘to make a record of what is done'” (33).  With the huge expansion of the federal government during the New Deal and World War II, the big push for records management came in the post-war era.  The Hoover Commission Task Force on Paperwork Management of the 1950s analyzed the correspondence of government agencies and found it mostly fell into two categories:

  • general correspondence, including “letters, memoranda, messages, cards, and possibly reports and other records” related to the general functions of the organization
  • correspondence related to “specific transactions or projects” and accumulated in case files (34)

Pinkett found value in general correspondence, suggesting it “provides administrators with invaluable information for their review of the background, development, and effectiveness of policies, procedures, and programs of their agencies” (35).  He also asserted it is valuable to researchers (35):

  • “supplies answers to the whys and wherefores of crucial Government actions”
  • “gives insight on public reaction to Government operations”
  • “provides intimate and unique data concerning the life, interests, habits, and environment of the Nation’s citizens”

Yet even with these potentially valuable reasons to collect general correspondence, Pinkett also acknowledged general correspondence files “tend to bulge with ephemera” (36).  He looked to state archivists from Illinois and North Carolina for estimates of 80-90 percent of routine correspondence that has little research value.

Obviously the question is how to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Pinkett recognized that scholars would not be able to sift through the mountains of correspondence and would be dependent on archivists to weed out the less valuable material.  He suggested several criteria to use in determining whether correspondence merits permanent preservation:

  • consider the administrative hierarchy of the organization and whether the files “contain documentation of basic policy and procedural decisions and major public reaction to such decisions and their implementation” (38)
  • recognize that middle management offices are usually involved in “detailed and recurrent activities,” with correspondence that is best preserved selectively rather than in toto because it tends to be summarized in reports received at a higher administrative level
  • prioritize correspondence from offices involved in “substantive activities” that carry out the functions of the organization and focus less on facilitative work “such as internal management and housekeeping” (39)

Long before Greene and Meissner introduced the idea of More Product Less Process (MPLP), Pinkett acknowledged it’s not feasible to review correspondence on an item-by-item basis to separate records with only temporary value from those deserving archival care.  He suggested at the higher administrative levels it might be more quickly assessed by considering the classification/organization of the correspondence files, so that “nonsubstantive material” concerning facilitative activities can be easily identified (40).  For the offices more involved with repetitive transactions, Pinkett asserted the value of sampling to retain representative samples of operating procedures.  He provided several methods of sampling:

  • pick a letter, any letter (e.g., keep all the correspondence from entities beginning with the letter C)
  • look at the frequency of contacts and services in order to determine representative correspondents

Finally, Pinkett suggested several ways to reduce the bulk of correspondence files:

  • eliminate any correspondence regarding non-major activities of the agency
  • de-duplicate records by identifying the “action offices” and consider their correspondence the official/complete record (43)

Tune in next week to see how these ideas might be applied to the modern world of email archiving.


“Managing the Records of Higher Education: The State of Records Management in American Colleges and Universities”

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The various scandals that have roiled university campuses in recent times justify an investigation into records management in the realm of higher education.  I’ll begin with this 1990 article written by Don C. Skemer and Geoffrey P. Williams.  Skemer was the head of Special Collections and Archives at the University at Albany, State University of New York; Williams was university archivist and campus records officer at the University of Albany.

The first university archives was not founded until 1938 (at Harvard).  The growth of education after World War II encouraged an explosion of college and university archives programs, growing five-fold from 1950 to 1990.  Skemer and Williams conducted a national survey to evaluate records management in colleges and universities.  They received 449 responses and were trying to answer several questions:

  • “Why have some institutions developed [records management] programs while others have not?
  • “Why do some succeed and others have not?
  • “Are there any valid operational models?
  • “What is the proper relationship between the archival and records management functions in academic institutions?” (533)

Skemer and Williams laid out a definition of records management in higher education:

“records management programs are considered to be organized efforts to provide centralized services for the management of all records in all formats generated by academic institutions in their day-to-day operations; the programs have been officially designated and legally authorized at the campus or system level to implement retention and disposition guidelines and provide other centralized services to an entire university or college, or at least in two or more of the following areas: administrative and departmental records; student records; business and financial records; and official publications” (537).

One-third of the survey respondents had records management programs, with three-fourths of these programs occurring at public colleges and universities.  Skemer and Williams asserted these results were so skewed because of “public expectation and requirements of legal and fiscal accountability” (537).  In a little more than half of these records management programs, archivist and records manager were shared duties.

Most of these campuses used office-specific retention and disposition schedules, usually developed from records surveys.  Compliance with these schedules was facilitated on about half the campuses through operation of a records storage center that could house obsolete and inactive records.  The survey noted little in the way of electronic records management.

The survey documented a number of benefits from records management programs (541):

  • better archival documentation
  • improved access to information
  • vital records protection
  • space and equipment savings

Yet problems still persisted, including (541-42):

  • inadequate staff and space
  • huge volume of records generated
  • inadequate support
  • low prioritization of records management
  • weak policies and outdated schedules
  • lack of compliance
  • inability to handle electronic records

The survey found that some individual offices — notably registrars — organized records management programs in the absence of campus-wide solutions.  This decentralized approach to records management was much more prevalent at private institutions.

Skemer and Williams contended that “legal requirements accompanying public finance and the success of records management in the public sector over the past half century are important reasons for the creation of campus records programs” (544).  They also acknowledged the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) necessitated policies, at least regarding student records.  They concluded:

“a change in archival thinking about records management might be beneficial.  The management of current and recent academic information for administrative purposes has to be considered as important to resource allocators and archivists as the preservation of historical information for cultural purposes is to archivists.  Unless archivists have a broader interest in the management of all administrative information, either directly or by coordination of decentralized efforts, most of them will continue to have weak records management programs or none at all” (547).

“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.

“Archival Janus: The Records Center”

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Herbert E. Angel delivered his presidential address at the 1967 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) held in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  His address was published in the January 1968 issue of the American Archivist.  Angel had worked in the federal government since 1932 and was at the time of this address the Assistant Archivist for Federal Records Centers for the National Archives.  He went on to be Deputy Archivist for James B. Rhoads until his retirement in 1972 (and was apparently Acting Archivist of the U.S. for some period of time, because there is a July 1969 letter he signed over that designation).

Angel began his address with a brief etymology of the term archives, pointing back to the Greek word archeion, which carried the meaning of government house, and chronicling how the term has subsequently been applied to (5):

  • “records of a governmental agency”
  • “accumulated files”
  • the institution responsible for the accumulated files
  • the structure housing the accumulated files

Angel explained that the first records center was established in 1941.  The massive amount of records generated by World War Two necessitated the creation of such an organization, and Emmett J. Leahy and Robert H. Bahmer oversaw the endeavor.  Angel said that records centers were sometimes referred to as purgatories, while the British called them “limbo”; depot was another familiar (and less theologically-weighted) term.  Angel suggested that records centers were distinct from records storage depots in that they also provided most of the services found at an archives — “accessioning, preservation, arrangement and description, reference service, and disposal” (9).  At the same time, records centers also mimic many functions of the creating offices:

  • store records
  • “act as a sure memory, furnishing quick and accurate reference service from a huge data bank” (10)

Angel also identified as positive contributions the ability of records centers to advise on recordkeeping practices and to generate cost savings.  He compared records centers to blue chip stocks, “whose solid professional assests [sic] assure a steady income of security and service and a value that increases unfailingly through the years” (11).

Of the three parts of records management — creation, maintenance, disposition — Angel posited that records centers focus on disposition first, as the foundation for making progress in the creation and maintenance of records.  He then explained that there are three steps in the cycle of developing records centers:

  1. reluctance to condone their creation
  2. acceptance of their existence and apparent good work
  3. overreliance (i.e., when “some official, convinced that the archivist is gullible, attempts to foist off on that unsuspecting individual active records that are in daily use, perhaps even the official’s central files” (11)

Angel recognized that records centers are looking both forward and backward and suggested Janus as the patron of records centers, “not because they are two faced or have two heads, but because they face in two directions: toward the offices from which the records come and toward the archives or the wastepaper dealer to which the records eventually go” (5).  He concluded by challenging the apparent death knell of records centers, correctly predicting that records centers would not be replaced by “microfilm, computer, or some other form of miniaturization” and instead would continue “providing a documentation door at which the past and the future can meet” (12).

“Changing Times”


In her October 1960 presidential address at the Society of American Archivists (SAA) annual meeting in Boston, Mary Givens Bryan looked both forward and backward.  Long before the International Council on Archives began publishing a journal entitled Janus and long before Richard Pearce-Moses suggested Janus as the appropriate patron of archivists, Bryan used her address to evaluate how far archivists had come in the 27 years of her professional career and what new frontiers archivists needed to chart.  She spent her career working her way up in the Georgia Department of Archives and History, serving as Director and State Archivist from 1951 to her death in 1964.  Her address was published in the January 1961 issue of the American Archivist.

Bryan preceded by three years Bob Dylan’s writing of the protest song “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”  While she was not trying to pen a protest song, she did reflect on what was happening within and without the archival community and challenged her SAA listeners to act accordingly.  She noted that during her year as SAA president, she read the 8,440 pages of the American Archivist printed to date, and she pointed to wisdom of the addresses of several of her predecessors.  The two biggest external changes on which Bryan focused were the burgeoning space race and the development of computing devices.  (By this point, numerous satellites had been launched by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and a probe had reached the moon.  Within 6 months, the first person would orbit the Earth.)  She wished to see the archival community prepare itself — whether by working with the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization  to identify essential records that warranted protection in case of atomic warfare or by working to learn about the new formats on which records were being created:

“not only textual but in the form of motion pictures, sound recordings, punch and aperture cards, video or magnetic tapes, electrostatic prints, electronic computations, and many more” (9)

She also predicted new technologies, such as “mechanized systems for searching, correlating, and synthesizing recorded knowledge” (6).

I can’t pretend that Bryan was entirely prescient — after all, she did suggest that microfilm readers would become common fixtures in American homes.  But I do appreciate her efforts to evaluate what had been accomplished and what was left to do.  Throughout, Bryan weaves in comments about the ongoing tug-of-war between archivists and records managers, urging a path of common goals.  She suggested the more pertinent divide was between specialists and generalists.  She asserted, “A Society composed only of specialists would soon collapse, for nobody would be left with the overall view — nobody who could see the woods as well as the trees” (7).  She went on to suggest, “What we need in our Society is more specialists who are capable of functioning as generalists” (7).  Bryan seemed concerned that the rapid pace of change would cause people’s specialized skills to become rapidly antiquated, whereas broad training could be more adaptively applied.

Bryan brought this line of thought back to the SAA, suggesting that its committees needed not to be satisfied with focusing on their narrow interests and duties but instead should use those positions “to explore, to ferret out, and to pass on to the rest of us — and particularly our newer members — the information and advice they and we are seeking” (8).  She concluded by challenging state archives to develop stronger local records programs, believing that “Ours is the responsibility for seeing that the best of Americana is preserved for generations to come after us, and that the records they will need are intact” (10).

“‘Public Records’ — Who Knows What They Are?”

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This week’s topic excites me for a number of reasons:

  1. I’ve always loved etymology, so it’s fascinating to see someone distill the various meanings of the term “public records.”
  2. Just this past week, I had a conversation with a colleague about how someone assumed confidential materials by their nature cannot be public records.
  3. I’ve frequently wondered about the connections between Oliver Wendell Holmes the Supreme Court justice and Oliver W. Holmes the archivist, so now I have a good excuse to research his background.

Oliver W. Holmes was president of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) from 1958-59.  He worked for many years at the National Archives, beginning when it opened in 1935 and filling numerous positions before retiring as Executive Director of the National Historical Publications Commission in 1972.  Holmes was also a founding member of SAA.  A colleague donated to the National Archives the books given to her by Holmes upon his death, and this collection is now available in the Archives Library Information Center.  An obituary was printed in American Archivist in 1982, and I was particularly struck by this line written by Walter Rundell, Jr.:

“Oliver’s career continues to challenge today’s professional archivists not to abandon the scholarly interests that originally led them to archival work” (249).

And the obituary written in the New York Times provided the answer to my underlying question — Holmes the archivist was named for Holmes the jurist but was not related to him.

Holmes delivered his presidential address at the October 1959 SAA annual meeting in Philadelphia.  It was published in the American Archivist in January 1960.  In the beginning, he acknowledged that a discussion of “public records” was only relevant in English-speaking countries, with the rest of the world embracing the term “archives.”  He then laid out four reasons why it was important to define the term “public records”:

  1. Records custodians need to understand which documents are public records because these records are subject to certain requirements, such as how and when they can be destroyed.
  2. Efforts to replevin public records back into public custody are based on an understanding of the term public records.
  3. The “right to know” movement of the time was pushing for greater access to public records.
  4. Public records traditionally have special evidentiary status, so it vital to determine which can be thus certified in courts of law.

Holmes thoroughly investigated the various definitions of public records in the states, going back to the 19th century.  More than four pages later, he concluded that, despite the efforts of the SAA and Albert L. Newsome to establish uniform standards for the states, these statutory definitions bear little imprint from archivists.  He contended that while archivists felt uncomfortable with the imprecise and inconsistent definitions of public records, the legal community had long been content with the precedents found in common law.  So Holmes set about to reveal these common law definitions of public records and came up with two things that public records are not and three distinct things they are:

  1. No court decisions defined public records as those belonging to the public.
  2. Public records are those created by public officials, not those received by them from the outside.  They include papers public officers are required to keep along with “all written memorials made by a public officer within his authority where such writings constitute a convenient, appropriate, or customary method of discharging the duties of office” (13-14).
  3. Public records are those open to inspection and use by the public.
  4. Public records document completed actions, meaning “negative decisions need not be made a matter of record” (15-16).  Holmes referred to this as the “closed transaction” philosophy.
  5. Finding aids and indices are merely pointers to records and are not public records themselves.

Holmes explained that these rather narrow (and not altogether complementary) definitions growing out of common law precedents rested on much narrower meanings of the terms “records” and “public.”  First to look at “records”:

  • In 1755, Dr. Samuel Johnson defined the verb “to record” — “to register anything so that its memory may not be lost” (17).  This definition perhaps explains the archival use of registers but also delineates that received documents are not records.
  • Based on the above definition, documents received only became records if they were written into the record — but when this became too onerous, the compromise was to notate the receipt of the document in the record rather than transcribing the entire document, thereby filing it “as of record.”
  • Documents were “the accumulating papers in an office that supplemented the records” (18).
  • Files were papers placed in order.
  • According to the above definitions, records + files = archives.

And now for “public”:

  • The oldest definition of public implied public in use, not in ownership (e.g., public meeting, public worship).
  • There is another connotation of public that does imply “being owned or supported by the people forming the body politic”  — such as public debt, public roads (20).
  • In some cases, both senses of public are implied, such as with public libraries that are both owned by and accessible to the public.
  • Holmes concluded that the growth of popular sovereignty in the new United States contributed to a new interpretation of public that underscored ownership by the people of government records.

Despite all of this thorough research, in the end Holmes did not offer a definitive definition of the term “public records.”  Instead, he laid the responsibility for parsing this definition at the feet of the records administrators and the archivists, suggesting that the definition must be based on what “public records” ought to be:

“What does the administrator need?  What must the Government as a whole have?  What does the law want?  What does the public expect its ‘public records’ to be?” (26)

Although Holmes acknowledged that the law had a right to define public records in the context of their admissibility in courts, he challenged the archivist to “mark the boundaries” of public records:

“He lives and works with the records systems of the past.  He expects to take over and administer those of the present and the future.  He is in the best position to advise the administrators, in their role as creators of the ‘public records,’ as to what they ought to be” (26).

P.S.  In North Carolina, where I live and work, there can in fact be confidential public records.  The Public Records Act first defines public records — including specifying they are the property of the people and, therefore, open to inspection — and then lists specific exemptions to this public records definition as well as identifying records that are confidential and not open to inspection.  Numerous other N.C. statutes also confer confidentiality to specific public records.

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