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.

“The Pendulum Swings”

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After many years of debating the appropriate make-up of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), and a preponderance of presidents whose professional experience came in government archives, William D. Overman was SAA president from 1957-58.  Although Overman also had experience as a government archivist, having been archivist at the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, during his tenure as SAA president, he was historian and archivist for the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company.  Understandably, Overman chose to focus his presidential address on the topic of business archives; his August 1958 address that was read at the SAA annual meeting in Salt Lake City was published in the American Archivist in January 1959.

Overman dedicated a substantial portion of his address to explaining why there were so few good existing models of how to handle voluminous 20th century records.  He suggested the European experience lacked a facility for handling masses of records.  He also criticized the so-called “efficiency experts” of the early 20th century in the United States for focusing too much on how to reduce the amount of extant records without considering which records had enduring value.  Instead, these efficiency experts counseled getting rid of existing records and systems and replacing them with less complicated systems, fewer forms, and some standardization (5).

Overman cited the wisdom of the Firestone family in recognizing the value of what we now call institutional memory — “‘History often provides cheaply experience which originally cost dearly'” (5).  This concern provided the impetus in 1937 for hiring Overman and establishing an archives department at Firestone.  Overman pointed to leaders in the archives and library field, such as Oliver W. Holmes and Stanley Pargellis, who shared an understanding of the importance of business records.  Both pointed to the way in which modern wars caused business and government to become intertwined, suggesting it would be impossible to write a thorough history of the United States without access to business records.

But acknowledging the importance of preserving business records does not accomplish it in practice.  While some proposed depositing inactive business records in libraries, Overman cited research that concluded this was inefficient.  Instead, the reigning thought was that records of permanent value should be kept in company archives.  Overman suggested that the archivists in charge of these collections should:

  • have academic training in history, political science, economics, and statistics
  • know the collection, both for the purposes of ready reference and daily use
  • understand the administrative and historical values of the records in the collection
  • (with the prior three factors addressed) be able adequately to appraise records of permanent value (8)

However, Overman also acknowledged that most companies of the era were not following this path and instead were following the efficiency expert model of merely reducing the quantity of extant records.  He cited a survey conducted by his staff that found only about half of 55-60 large U.S. companies at that time had archival programs in place, and only 15% employed archivists as well as record managers (7).  Overman laid responsibility for this trend at the feet of record management specialists, who were “primarily concerned with the e of so-called useless records; that is, records that have served their usefulness in the ordinary conduct of business and have satisfied the statutes of limitations or other legal requirements” (9).

In the end, Overman clarified his imagery of the pendulum — he equated the record management specialist with the old efficiency expert, concluding that the focus of records management had swung too far in the direction of disposing of records without consideration of how to preserve records of enduring value.

If you find yourself interested in seeing how these issues regarding business records have progressed since 1958, you can check out the paper I wrote for an Archival Appraisal course.

“What Should Bind Us Together”


In October 1955, Morris L. Radoff delivered his presidential address at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in Nashville, Tennessee.  It was published in the American Archivist in January 1956.  Radoff was the 10th SAA president, serving from 1954-1955.  He was also the state archivist of Maryland.

The title of Radoff’s address gave clear evidence that the schism between archivists and records managers to which Wayne Grover alluded in his 1954 presidential address was still a hot issue.  He acknowledged the pattern of his predecessors to review the addresses of former presidents, suggesting it was “the need for a tradition, for a solid, unifying base, which makes us pore over the words of our past presidents”; Radoff concluded, “We are seeking there, it seems to me, the elusive something which does, or ought to, bind us together” (3).  Radoff briefly summarized Grover’s address and said he agreed with Grover in principle, though he found some of Grover’s evidence flawed.  Rather than asserting that archivists and records managers have “common interests,” as Grover argued, Radoff contended that the two professional groups “have only one interest; namely, the guardianship of records” (4).  Accordingly, Radoff suggested that professionals in both types of positions should share the same title; he suggested archivist “because the name is universal and meaningful; whereas records management is new, known only in this country, and not altogether understood even here” (4).

Radoff somewhat explained the differences between archivists and records managers by looking at the paths to the professions, with archivists coming from the realms of scholarship, law, and history while records managers tended to rise up the ranks of government positions.  But Radoff saw little point in the arbitrary division that was being drawn between the records management of active records and the archival care of inactive historical records.  Rather than sub-specializing, he believed:

“The records management specialist ought to know which records will have permanent value, the archivist ought to know, by the same token, what records should be created, and if any one of us does not know these things, then we should not be proud of that fact and we should not adopt titles, new or old, to justify our ignorance.  Instead, we should learn what we do not already know” (5).

And with an even more concise criticism of each side of this debate, Radoff concluded, “The archivist must not continue his stiff-necked aloofness, nor must the records management expert despise the deliberate approach of the archivist” (7).

One other reflection back to Grover’s address involved his assertion that archivists had seemingly lost influence since the founding of SAA.  Radoff conjectured that this lack of respect could be due to the lack of standardized education required for the archival profession.  He pointed back to the Bemis report, spearheaded by Samuel Flagg Bemis and published in the American Archivist in January 1939, suggesting that its design for archival education could still lend some desired professionalism and respect.  Radoff concluded:

“we should strive to give our profession the dignity, the unity, the opportunity for service that can come only from the mastery of a body of learning.  And this body of learning should by all means include the whole art and mystery of records.  This surely will bind us together” (9).

One final point of clarification: Grover spoke in the previous year about modifying the membership policy of SAA, and Radoff mentioned in his address that he supported the constitutional amendment.  The following changes were accepted at the October 1955 SAA meeting unanimously and without discussion:

3. Individual membership shall be open to those who are or have been engaged in the custody or control of records, archives, or historical manuscripts, or who, because of their interest in the field, wish to support the objectives of the Society.
4. Institutional membership shall be open to institutions or agencies that are concerned or substantially interested in the custody or control of records, archives, or historical manuscripts.  An institutional member shall be entitled to representation at all meetings of the Society by one delegate.  He may vote and hold office, but if he is also an individual member, he may not cast a second vote.
5. Members shall be enrolled upon receipt of their first payment of dues.

(The text of this amendment was printed in the July 1955 American Archivist; the summary of the business meetings was printed in the January 1956 issue.)

“Archives: Society and Profession”


I keep running into problems with presidential addresses that were not printed in the American Archivist.  In October 1951 the Society of American Archivists (SAA) met in Annapolis, Maryland, but the meeting summary contained no mention of a presidential address.  The October 1952 meeting in Lexington, Kentucky, mentioned no presidential address in the annual report, and the September 1953 in Detroit, Michigan, has no summary at all in the American Archivist.  William D. McCain of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History was the 8th SAA president, serving from 1951-1953.

SAA met in September 1954 in Williamsburg, Virginia, and Wayne C. Grover delivered the presidential address.  It was published in the American Archivist in January 1955.  At the time of this address, Grover was early in his tenure as the third Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), a position that he held from 1948-1965, making him the longest serving AOTUS.  Both of his predecessors as AOTUS had also served as president of SAA: Robert D. W. Connor and Solon J. Buck.  After his resignation in 1965, Grover consulted on the creation of the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.

Numerous monumental events happened while Grover was at the helm of the National Archives:

  • It ceased being an independent agency in 1949 and was placed under the General Services Administration (where it remained until 1985).
  • The system of presidential libraries was begun.
  • The Charters of Freedom were transferred to the National Archives from the Library of Congress.

In this presidential address, Grover made reference to the transfer of the charters, along with a quip about the frequent use of the 5th amendment, which I can only assume was a commentary on the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations after World War Two and the Army-McCarthy hearings earlier in 1954.

Grover acknowledged the “disturbing issue of recent times” for the SAA was the “proper relationship of archivists and archival agencies to what is variously called ‘records management,’ ‘records administration,’ or, if you like, ‘record administration'” (3-4).  Grover cited the presidential address of Albert Newsome for establishing “the importance of serving scholarship” and for emphasizing the vital role of archivists in preserving public records (4).  Grover asserted that records administrators and records managers rose to fill the needs of public officials in the federal government and defined their commonality with archivists as “their interest in improving the quality and decreasing the quantity of an organization’s records” (5).  There had clearly been discussions going on as to whether archivists and records managers should part ways, and Grover landed decidedly on the side of the big tent approach.  He contended that without large numbers of people in the archival profession and without legal sanctions undergirding the work, creating a closed professional group would not help advance the causes of the American archival community.  Grover summarized the history of how the SAA grew out of the Conference of Archivists, which had been sponsored by the Public Archives Commission of the American Historical Association.  He argued that the Public Archives Commission had demonstrated more of a “missionary fervor” that was lacking in the SAA, as demonstrated by the relative paucity of archival growth after the ending of the Public Archives Commission in 1934 and the birth of the SAA in 1936.  Grover ultimately advocated for an open membership policy for the SAA:

“I believe we can be most effective if we arrange our affairs so that we can recruit into our ranks and put to work on our committees all the influential and interested citizens we can persuade to join — leading historians, business leaders, public officials, religious leaders, labor leaders, and anyone else who will assist us” (9).

Grover argued for the interdependence of archivists and records managers as the most efficient way both to handle technical problems (i.e., exchanging professional information) as well as to provide opportunities to be evangelists of the archival word “in places and organizations that have not as yet, unfortunately, seen the light” (10).  A number of upcoming presidential addresses will return to this same issue, so stay tuned for more information.

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