The pomp and circumstance of archival parchment

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

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

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

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

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

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

The legacy of Watergate

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama presidential library — make that center

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

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

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

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

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

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

The future of presidential correspondence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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).


What Ansel Adams Could Teach Archivists

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I recently had an opportunity to view an exhibit of Ansel Adams photographs at the North Carolina Museum of Art.  Although I’ve been a fan of his work for some time, I appreciated learning more about his notion of visualization.  In an interview he explained that “the creative work is the internal event that happens inside your mind when you see the photograph.”  He credited Alfred Stieglitz as a model for the idea of seeing in the mind’s eye:

“I come across something that excites me, I see the picture in my mind’s eye, and I make a photograph, and then I give it to you as the equivalent of what I saw and felt.”

Adams did a lot of his work under the auspices of the National Park Service, so many of his photographs are available at the National Archives.

I believe the process that Adams followed could be useful archival work.  Too often it seems we dive into projects and hope for the best without having any notion of what we hope to see as the culmination.  While we can’t mandate what records cross our thresholds, we can try to be more proactive about how we handle the records we’ve already received and how we perceive our responsibilities to gather and preserve the stories of today for tomorrow’s users.  Although this would undoubtedly be seen as too interventionist by many, in keeping with concepts such as the documentation strategy, I think archivists should think carefully about how we reach out to people who are currently creating records and provide more guidance about how best to create and maintain records of events occurring today.  If we choose to avoid this role, I see two things happening — either the records are lost from history and/or archivists lose our voice as others step in to provide advice on managing the predominately digital records that are currently being created.

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