Monday, March 30, 2009

Anthony Clark and NARA

Over the past few weeks, the Archives & Archivists listserv has been home to a lengthy series of postings chronicling the shabby manner in which the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has treated Anthony Clark, who has sought access to records concerning NARA's Presidential libraries. I've followed the discussion on the listserv and on Mr. Clark's blog, and I have to conclude that, to say the least, some folks at NARA have some explaining to do -- and some corrective actions to undertake.

Owing to the manner in which the discussion was initiated and the tone that it has taken, to date I've refrained from commenting; I simply assumed that the listserv was experiencing yet another heat wave and that cooler, more rational discussion would eventually prevail. Unfortunately, to date, there is nary a cold front in sight. The discussion, which now involves the blogosphere as well, remains as heated as ever. The latest hotspot: ArchivesNext. Kate T. did a little independent digging and dispassionately presented her conclusions, and received harsh and, in my view, unwarranted criticism from Clark and his archival champion, Richard Cox.

FWIW, Kate and I spoke for a few minutes at a conference several years ago, and our subsequent interactions have consisted of posting sporadic comments on a Facebook group and on each other's blogs. I'm defending Kate not because she's a friend but because I think her well-reasoned, deliberative post was met with unwarranted hostility -- and because this sort of hostility has, in my view, consistently inhibited honest discussion of Clark's case.

The discussion on the listserv was initiated with the desire to spur the Society of American Archivists to respond to the situation, and to do so in a very specific way. It was also animated by the belief -- sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit -- that anyone who did not immediately take to the streets and demand that SAA do exactly as Clark and Cox desired was guilty of bad faith, bad judgment, or both.

As Terry at Beaver Archivist aptly pointed out this morning:
It is clear that the constant public pressure from a vocal and respected archivist, Richard Cox, helped move NARA to finally act in a responsible way towards Anthony Clark. The importance of this kind of public advocacy cannot be understated and there is merit to the argument that a group like SAA should have gotten into the game earlier and should not feel constrained by its ethics code from taking public positions issues like this.

But there have been other efforts working from other angles to make this happen as well. It is disingenuous to claim that these other efforts are meaningless.
Unfortunately, Cox and now, judging from his most recent statements, Clark himself seem to be of the opinion that anyone proposes a different means of achieving the desired end -- NARA's prompt disclosure of the records that Mr. Clark has requested -- is simply sucking up to NARA or seeking to sweep an inconvenient problem under the rug. They are thus alienating many people who would otherwise be outspokenly supportive of efforts to hold NARA accountable for its conduct.

It really does seem that there are a few staffers at NARA who fully deserve whatever acid criticism comes their way. However, when it comes to SAA and the archival profession as a whole, you can, as the old saying goes, catch a lot more flies with honey . . . .

Postscript, 2009-03-31: I was mulling over the NARA-FOIA-Clark-Cox-SAA situation during a few minutes of downtime this morning, and it struck me that the above post might leave the impression that I view Clark's problem as isolated and that prompt review and disclosure of the records that are the subject of his FOIA request will solve everything. From the start, I've suspected some broader changes at NARA will likely be needed. I meant to make this point in my original post, which was written at the end of an intense day (more about that tomorrow), but didn't.


Anonymous said...

"suck ups" , "alienating" and "acid criticism" are on target for those who have met it in the past in the profession and in the classroom. Consider it a part of everyone's true professional education : to lead, follow, or simply get out of the way.

Thanks for your post on this btw

Anonymous said...

Interesting post and PS. What broader changes at NARA do you think are needed? Friends tell me that it has a multiplicity of cultures and its functional units differ in many key ways.(Apparently too complicated to address, seemingly hasn't been addressed anywhere else in detail in discussion of this case. Would be hard to get into, I imagine).

When you say changes, are you thinking vertically in terms of how specific internal units do things such as deal with researchers or horizontally in terms of across-the-board business processes or what? Or are you thinking about how government agencies generally do FOIA or what an administration does and doesn't mean when it uses the term "transparency?" Just some of the things that have popped into my mind as I've been following the story.

As for such discussion as there was on the List and on blogs, I would like to have heard more discussion -- from various, different people --about concepts, how they appear in the classroom and in practical application, and the impact of factors relating to organizational cultures, more so than specifically named people/officials (who are hard to judge from outside). Wonder how the next big archival advocacy issue (whatever that is and whatever institution is the focus) will play out? Thanks for following this one.

L'Archivista said...

I have never worked at NARA, and my interactions with it have been limited to visits to various NARA facilities and discussions with NARA staff (some of whom I like quite a lot). I would not be surprised if NARA had a variety of internal cultures/subcultures; frankly, I would be stunned if any large entity with geographically dispersed facilities managed to create a single, universally embraced organizational culture.

Given that I am such an outsider, I am hesitant to make sweeping pronouncements regarding the specific changes NARA needs; I have the feeling that there are plenty of NARA folks who would gladly do so, albeit off the record. It nonetheless seems rather plain that NARA needs to get a better grip on its organizational records, review and provide access to the records Mr. Clark seeks, and implement policies that ensure that future researchers don't face similar problems. As Kate pointed out, NARA seems to have taken at least a few first steps in the right direction, at least as far as Mr. Clark's request is concerned.

I would like to believe that the delays in releasing, e.g., finding aids and the conflicting statements that have been made to Mr. Clark are the result of bad recordkeeping and staff shortages. Even if this is the case, any entity charged with promoting records management should practice what it preaches. Of course, if the delays and conflicting statements are symptomatic of a dysfunctional culture/subculture, stronger remedies are in order.

Anonymous said...

A guiding rule of thumb must always be, "just the facts" please.

which at least KT has offered more than others up front. This is a sign of professionalism, always going to the source, esp. to professionals working in archives and libraries. oh yes, might they even be called a practitioner?

good organizations, and good professionals yes even those at NARA and other organizations know this every day or they would not be there. Peronal politics very often will exist more in academia more than you might find at NARA and is a routine common day issue in top research organizations who deal with it every day.

Learned behavior begins "at home", i.e. from one's so called education as a professional.
This is not always as honorable as it may sound even from leading universities. This does a disservice not only to the future generation, but also to the future of the profession which fails to thrive year after year.

Anonymous said...

Good point about large organizations, L'Archivista. Come to think of it, this would have presented a good opportunity to discuss and debate how large archival institutions operate. Wonder how the topic would have played out if it would have been introduced in a less prescriptive manner. With more "here's how it looks to me, here's what I think should be done, but I could be wrong, how's it look to you?" And less sense of "here's how it is, here's what you have to do." That had to be done at the outset. I think that might have opened it up more, maybe. Too late now.

It was interesting to see that there wasn't a central place to discuss this, even under the conditions in which it was introduced. The one thing that brought some very different of people together -- people who weren't actually necessarily all personal friends of Kate or each other -- was a sense that Kate did not deserve the type of attention she drew March 30. We finally have an archival identity :-)

For those who mentioned having NARA sources in blogging about this, including Clark, part of the problem for anyone outside NARA was that we didn't really know enough about them. No way to do that given the way sources work. But for anyone outside, there was no sense of whether those sources worked in operating divisions or staff offices. Or whether those units had their own sub-cultures or had been involved in disputes or in-fighting with other units. With some exceptions, when people mentioned knowing or talking to others at NARA, they didn't mention how they knew them or who they were. There wasn't any way for outsiders to factor in what internal conditions may have shaped the varying points of view of those sources.

As you point out, correctly and realistically, all large organizations have diverse cultures and sometimes even differing values. So there is a lot to juggle and manage. I don't know how much professors get into that in the classroom nowadays but archivists sure do learn it once they get jobs. Thanks again for blogging about this.