Saturday, January 31, 2009

Nixon tapes again

Former Nixon White House counsel John W. Dean III delivering the keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists, 28 August 2008.

The New York Times has just posted an article concerning the ongoing controversy surrounding historian Stanley Kutler, who played a pivotal role in securing the release of White House tapes documenting the Watergate coverup and whose transcriptions of the tapes have served as raw material for other scholars. The latest chapter concerns an article submitted to the American Historical Review by historian Peter Klingman, who is among a small group of researchers and journalists --and at least one archivist formerly employed by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) -- who assert that Kutler's transcripts are problematic:
. . . Longtime critics of his transcripts say Mr. Kutler deliberately edited the tapes in ways that painted a more benign portrait of a central figure in the drama, the conspirator-turned-star-witness, John W. Dean III, the White House counsel who told Nixon that Watergate had become a “cancer” on his presidency.

Behind the accusations are rival visions of Mr. Dean, who is seen by some as a flawed but ultimately courageous man reluctantly sucked into the scandal, and by others as a primary architect of the cover-up who saved himself by deflecting guilt.
As the article notes, the controversy continues because the 1973 tapes at the center of it are not yet widely accessible to the public. In the mid-1990s, Kutler and a public-interest organization sued the federal government in order to obtain copies of approximately 200 hours of recordings that documented the White House's abuses of power and that had not been released to the public. NARA is gradually releasing the approximately 3,700 hours' worth of recordings in chronological order, but at present only those tapes created between February 1971 and December 1972 are publicly available; most of the November and December 1972 recordings are available online, and one of the tape processing archivists has written a summary overview of NARA's processing procedures.

The recordings at the center of this particular controversy were created in March 1973, and as the Times notes, they were released to the public in connection with a lawsuit that John Dean filed against one of Kutler's fiercest critics. Many Nixon scholars have since listened to these tapes, but they differ as to whether Kutler's transcripts accurately reflect their content.

Although the official release of the March 1973 tape recordings will probably resolve some of the major differences between Kutler and his critics, it is highly unlikely that it will put a definitive end to the controversy. As Kutler himself noted in the introduction to Abuse of Power, which includes his transcripts of these tapes:
The logistics of preparing these conversations for publication have been complicated and difficult. There are no transcriptions and the tapes cannot be removed from the National Archives at this time. Professional court reporters and transcribers prepared the initial transcripts. My research assistant and I then listened to the tapes to fill in significant gaps of "unintelligibles" and to insure accuracy as far as possible.The process of deciphering the tapes is endless. Different ears pick up a once-unintelligible comment, or correct a previous understanding. Such is the nature of the material.
Long after the complete run of Nixon tapes is released, scholars will likely continue to debate the meaning of all of the clicks, pops, hisses, and unintelligble words and phrases that the tapes contain. They will also continue to speculate about NARA's sound engineers' efforts to maximize the audibility of the tapes and the snippets that NARA's processing archivists are legally compelled to redact for national security, personal privacy, or other reasons. And, of course, they will differ as to how to interpret the information contained within these recordings and other archival records.

Controversies such as that focusing on the Nixon tapes and the Kutler transcripts are going to be with us for a very long time, and archivists aren't going to be the ones to settle them; we are stewards of the historical record, not the chief intepreters of it. However, if I worked for the Nixon Library or the NARA unit that is processing the Nixon tapes, I would be most interested in whether the American Historical Review opts to publish Klingman's article and in the content of the article itself. Heck, I don't even work for NARA, and my curiosity is piqued!

If your curiosity is also piqued, portions of Kutler's transcripts are available online via Google's Book Search and it looks as if the Times is planning to place audio excerpts from the March 1973 recordings on its Web site. The Times article concerning the controversy is slated to appear on page A1 of tomorrow's print edition, so Times staff may be waiting until tomorrow to enable the link to the audio files. I'll supply the link when and if it goes live.

Update, 1 February 2009: The Times has now placed links to the audio files in a sidebar that accompanies the main story; there is no separate link.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

PowerPoint to the People?

I don't expect that journalists will grasp the finer points of records management, and I recognize the acute time pressures that they face. I am nonetheless disappointed when a reporter or columnist whose work I generally admire makes a mess of things. Fred Kaplan, Slate's military affairs correspondent, has just joined the ranks of journalists who haven't done their homework.

In this week's column, "PowerPoint to the People," Kaplan starts by identifying another step that, in his view, would enable that the Obama administration could demonstrate its stated commitment to open government:
Force the federal agencies to file and maintain all the records they're creating now, so that in the future when citizens file [Freedom of Information Act] requests to declassify documents, they won't receive a form letter that reads, "Sorry, no such documents exist."
Archivists and records managers will immediately pinpoint the folly of this approach, which will result in the preservation of all kinds of materials that simply don't warrant long-term preservation, among them countless e-mail messages about routine matters (e.g., lost reading glasses, traffic problems, staff holiday parties), innumerable iterations of draft documents produced in the course of completing projects, duplicate copies of files disseminated for staff review or convenience, copies of billing records documenting routine purchases (e.g, pens, notepads), and other records of transitory value. In such a recordkeeping environment, the important stuff will probably be kept, but sifting through all of the digital detritus in order to find it might be a real challenge.

Most of "PowerPoint to the People" concerns a U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) assessment of recordkeeping practices within U.S. Air Force central offices. This report was completed in 2005 but remained an internal document until this week, when it was released as a result of a lawsuit filed by the National Security Archive.

Unfortunately, a close reading of the report itself suggests that Kaplan did not fully engage with it or do any sort of follow-up work. For example, as Kaplan rightly notes, the report indicates that "electronic records" generated by the fifteen units that comprise Headquarters Air Force "are generally not disposed of in accordance with" federal regulations. However, as the report plainly states, one of NARA's key findings was that "to date, this has largely resulted in retaining temprorary records indefinitely, as opposed to their premature disposal or the destruction of permanent documents" -- a conclusion that directly contradicts the keep-everything approach that Kaplan advocates.

Kaplan's dissection of the report's assessment of NARA's own capacity to manage electronic records also leaves the impression that this column was assembled with undue haste. He makes much of the report's assertion that NARA "is still unable to accept Microsoft Word documents and PowerPoint slides": PowerPoint is the preferred format for internal Pentagon briefings, and NARA's inability to accept PowerPoint files raises the possibility that a significant amount of archival records created by the military "may be lost to the ether."

NARA's apparent inability to accept PowerPoint slides or Word documents is truly distressing, and NARA's current transfer guidelines indeed indicate that, at least at this point in time, agencies cannot transfer files in these formats. Nonetheless, had Kaplan done a few quick Web searches he would have been able to advance a stronger and more nuanced argument.

For example, Kaplan, whose only source is the 2005 Air Force recordkeeping report itself, points out that:
The National Archives only "recently" —- it doesn't say how recently -— revised its procedures so that it could accept e-mail with attachments, scanned text documents, PDFs, digital photos, and Web content.
According to NARA's current electronic records transfer guidelines, NARA began accepting e-mail with attachments in September 2002 and continued expanding its list of acceptable file formats until September 2004, when it started accepting Web records. Why Kaplan didn't do a quick Web search -- or simply call NARA's press office -- is a bit of a mystery.

Kaplan also notes that:
The National Archives is developing an "Electronic Records Archive," so that it can finally deal with Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. But, according to the study, that is being "planned for implementation in the next seven years." (Italics added.) The study was written four years ago; so, assuming the program is still on track, it will be up and running three years from now, when Obama's first term is almost over.
NARA hasn't always been as forthcoming about the specifics of the multi-year, multi-phase Electronic Records Archives project, which began taking in records last summer, as some within the archival and records management communities would like. However, the NARA Web site contains a lot of information about the program, and tracking it down isn't particularly difficult.

Finally, Kaplan summarizes the report's recommendations regarding improvement of electronic records management practices as follows:
Meanwhile, the study urges all agencies to keep their electronic records in a safe place. Good luck with that.
In fairness, assessing the report's recommendations is a bit of a challenge: all of the higher-level recommendations have been redacted from the publicly released version of this report. However, the report contains many recommendations that were not redacted and are readily identifiable, among them:
  • Give the records management office greater visibility and authority by increasing the salary grade of the records management officer and placing all records management staff positions under the authority of the records management officer.
  • Develop detailed file plans for all Headquarters Air Force offices.
  • Maintain all records "in electronic folders on a shared drive in accordance with the [records] disposition schedule."
  • Headquarters Air Force should consider implementing an electronic recordkeeping system that complies with Department of Defense standard DOD 5015.2-STD.
  • Transfer to NARA archival paper records and electronic records encoded in formats that NARA can currentl accept.
  • Work with NARA to ensure that all electronic records are properly scheduled, i.e., classed as meriting permanent preservation or eligible for destruction at an agreed-upon time.
  • Taking steps to ensure that duplicate copies of electronic records are identified and properly disposed of.
  • Ensuring that records slated for transfer to a NARA-operated federal records center are indeed transferred appropriately.
One can argue that these recommendations fall short of the mark, but surely they amount to more than simply advising Headquarters Air Force to "keep their electronic records in a safe place."

I still like most of Kaplan's work; among other things, he's offered what is, in my view, the most cogent explanation to date of President Obama's decision to appoint Leon Panetta to head the Central Intelligence Agency. I also recognize that every now and then, a good columnist will produce a real clinker of a piece -- s/he may be chasing a big story, unable to marshal all the facts prior to deadline, or simply under the weather during a given week. I just wish that Kaplan's clinker had centered on something other than electronic recordkeeping.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Preserving Web sites

I really wish that I had been able to find more time last week to blog about all of the stuff that happened last week . . . .

First, we had some momentous changes at the federal level. As any archivist who hasn't had his or her head in the sand knows, the very first executive order that President Obama signed overturns President Bush's dread E.O. 13233 and should facilitate the timely release of presidential records. President Obama signed a memorandum reminding the heads of all federal agencies that "the Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails." The archival blogosphere and listservs have been chock-full of commentary about these developments, and I really don't have much to add to the discussion at this point; suffice it to say that I'm really, really glad that E.O. 13233 is gone.

Yesterday, an opinion piece penned by Lynne Brindley, the head of the British Library, appeared in the Guardian. Noting that "personal digital disorder" -- our unwillingness or inability to save the digital photos and other electronic materials we create in a way that ensures their long-term survival -- threatens "to leave our grandchildren bereft," she asserts:
As chief executive of the British Library, it's my job to ensure that this does not extend to our national memory. At the exact moment Barack Obama was inaugurated, all traces of President Bush vanished from the White House website, replaced by images of and speeches by his successor. Attached to the website had been a booklet entitled 100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration - they may never know them now. When the website changed, the link was broken and the booklet became unavailable.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics was the first truly online games with more 150 websites, but these sites disappeared overnight at the end of the games and the only record is held by the National Library of Australia.

These are just two examples of a huge challenge that faces digital Britain. There are approximately 8 million .uk domain websites and that number grows at a rate of 15-20% annually. The scale is enormous and the value of these websites for future research and innovation is vast, but online content is notoriously ephemeral.

If websites continue to disappear in the same way as those on President Bush and the Sydney Olympics - perhaps exacerbated by the current economic climate that is killing companies - the memory of the nation disappears too. Historians and citizens of the future will find a black hole in the knowledge base of the 21st century.

Brindley goes on to point out that, popular assumptions to the contrary, Google and other commercial entities are simply not capturing and preserving the "nortoriously ephemeral" but immensely valuable information found on the Web:
. . . . The task of capturing our online intellectual heritage and preserving it for the long term falls, quite rightly, to the same libraries and archives that have over centuries systematically collected books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings and which remain available in perpetuity, thanks to these institutions.
She then details the British Library's efforts to digitize some of its paper treasures, ensure the preservation of Web sites relating to the 2010 Olympic Games in London, and, "with appropriate regulation . . . create a comprehensive archive of materials from the UK Web domain."

Brindley is absolutely right, but there really is something missing from this article: an explanation of why libraries and archives must carry out this particular mission. I'm not faulting Brindley for this omission. The editors of the Guardian no doubt had a substantial amount of say in determining the length and overall content of this piece, and Brindley is using her ration of words to link the British Library's activities to a highly anticipated government report on the future of "digital Britain."

However, without explicit discussion of the role that libraries and archives play in preserving cultural heritage materials over very long periods of time and ensuring that the materials in their possession are authentic and unaltered, many people simply won't grasp why it's important that institutions such as the British Library are seeking to preserve electronic materials. A cursory glance at the comment section associated with this article illustrates precisely why this focus on the long term and on authenticity is needed: one of the commenters states that a copy of "100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration" is currently available on another publicly accessible Web site and that the British Library simply doesn't know how to use Google. However, the commenter doesn't seem to have thought about whether the copy found on this Web site has not been altered or whether the site itself will be around in 10 years, let alone 100 or 1000 years; given that s/he also links to a parody of this booklet, s/he may simply have tongue planted firmly in cheek, but there is no way to tell from the comment alone.

Unless librarians and archivists do more to jolt people out of their present-minded view of the Web and digital materials generally and to underscore the importance of safeguarding the integrity of digital information that warrants long-term preservation, we're going to find it harder and harder to secure the resources we need to preserve and provide access to it. There simply is no alternative to emphasizing -- loudly and insistently -- that we seek both to serve today's researchers and to lay the foundation needed to ensure that future generations of archivists and librarians will be able to serve future generations of researchers.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Cultural Education Center in winter

It's been a momentous week, and all kinds of interesting records-related developments have taken place, chief among them President Obama's issuance of a new presidential records executive order. However, I'm going to wait until the weekend to post about them. I'm doing a ton of research and writing at work this week, and the thought of pulling together a long post is a bit much right now.

In the meantime, here's a picture, taken on a bitterly cold evening in late November of last year, of the Cultural Education Center, which houses the New York State Archives (our stacks and some offices are located on the building's windowless uppermost floor), the New York State Library, and the New York State Museum.

This photograph really doesn't have any sort of deeper meaning -- even though New York State's budget situation looks pretty dark and icy -- and I post it simply because I've developed a deep fondness for the Cultural Education Center and the Empire State Plaza of which it is part. I realize that not everyone shares my views (I despised the plaza when I first moved to Albany), and I'm fully aware that the plaza is laden with deadening modernist cliches. Nonetheless, it is kind of cool to walk around a complex that looks like the set of a sci-fi movie, particularly at night. At any rate, I hope you enjoy this nighttime view of my workplace.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Allen Weinstein piece in USA Today

In lieu of commenting on the brand-new administration's brand-new blog, yesterday's federal court ruling concerning the records of the just-departed Vice President and what it says about the Presidential Records Act, or any of the other things that happened today, I'm simply going to point out that former U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein wrote an excellent article for USA Today detailing significant inauguration ceremonies and speeches. It quickly, vividly, and accessibly distills a lot of scholarly research and reflection, and it's a sheer pleasure to read. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Home Depot's "Dream" for MLK Papers

A few minutes ago, I was reading the Washington Post online and was stunned to encounter a Home Depot banner ad relevant to the world of archives: "Purchase this gift card, and we'll make a donation toward building a permanent home for the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers."

Clicking the ad took me to a Home Depot page outlining the promotion: purchase a special collector's edition "Dream" gift card between 9 January and 28 February 2009, and the Home Depot Foundation will donate 5 percent of the value placed on the card to the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which will become the "permanent exhibition home for the personal writings and papers of Dr. King."

From an archivist's point of view, the satisfying thing about this page is that it includes a brief description of the King Papers:
. . . . The extensive collection of original documents by Dr. King includes more than 10,000 items, among them 7,000 handwritten notes.

The papers span from 1946 to 1968, an especially active period in King's life, and include drafts of his "I Have a Dream" speech, his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," other theological writings and his Nobel Peace Prize addresses . . . .
The page also includes links to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, the King Collection at Morehouse College, which holds the King Papers, and the Center for Civil and Human Rights, which, when finished, will document global civil rights and human rights struggles, with particular emphasis upon events that took place in Atlanta and Georgia.

Finally, the page points out the role that the Home Depot played in bringing the King Papers, which came harrowingly close to being broken up and auctioned off, to Morehouse College; given that the company has donated $1,150,000 to date and will give up to $1,000,000 more as a result of this gift card promotion, I suppose it's entitled to a bit of trumpet-blowing.

I know that corporate sponsorship of archives might, in some instances, have too many strings attached, but I'm really happy that Home Depot has made such an extensive commitment to preserving and raising the public profile of the King Papers. Explaining the value of the King Papers helps, in an indirect but very real way, to explain the importance of archives and manuscripts in general, and I hope that other corporations start seeing the preservation and provision of access to archival and manuscript collections as worthy of their support.

I don't spend a lot of time in Home Depot -- largely because I don't own a home -- but I'm starting to think about picking up a few "Dream" cards and using them as 2009 birthday, etc., gifts. Several people on my gift list will happily take advantage of any opportunity to ogle power tools, and all of them will be pleased to learn that the cards come with the added bonus of helping to preserve one of the nation's most significant collections of 20th century historical records.

Of course, not everyone has friends and family who rhapsodize over drills, saws, and routers, and some people simply prefer to shop elsewhere. Folks who want to see the King Papers preserved and made accessible but who don't need any gift cards can donate directly to the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, which oversees the King Papers Project, or to the Center for Civil and Human Rights Partnership.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Coming up: an e-discovery tsunami?

Earlier today, Computerworld posted an interesting piece speculating that requests for information about the lending practices of failed banks may highlight sloppy records retention policies and practices and propel regulators to crack down on institutions that don't comply fully with Sarbanes-Oxley and other records-related laws and regulations. Among those quoted in the article is Debra Logan of Gartner, who predicts that disgruntled employers and customers will file all manner of lawsuits and that e-discovery and e-recordkeeping issues will come to the fore as a result:
The amount of litigation that's going to be generated out of this Wall Street meltdown is going to be unbelievable. The regulators will be asking the banks what happened . . . . Lawsuits stemming from problems at government-backed mortgage finance companies ' Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae will result in systemic change.
Other experts quoted predict that, in addition to stricter enforcement of existing laws and regulations, lawmakers and regulators might impose even more stringent record-keeping controls upon the financial sector -- and the health care industry, which is moving toward electronic-record keeping despite shortcomings in its records retention practices.

It will be most interesting to see how record-keeping practices evolve as people try to make sense of the chaos that has consumed the financial industry and come to grips with the challenges of electronic medical records. Maybe we will start seeing some real attention paid to records management -- and a diffusion of lessons learned in the financial and health care sectors to other industries and government.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Odd news item

Like any reasonably committed blogger, I've set up some news alerts that automatically notify me when stories that may be of interest to me pop up on the Web. Sometimes the results are spot on, sometimes they're way off, and sometimes they're simply intriguing.

A few days ago, the the Poughkeepsie Journal ran a brief item detailing the arrest of a man charged with drug possession. Routine little piece, but with a curiosity-piquing last sentence:
Police said he allegedly had 35 bags of heroin in his possession. Also seized were cash, drug paraphernalia and electronic records.
"Electronic records"? I'm sure that the police simply confiscated his cell phone or pager and are planning to use the data stored within it to prove that he was knowingly engaged in criminal activity. The phrase "electronic records" nonetheless conjures up all sorts of beguiling -- and hilarious -- possibilities.

I'm a big fan of the late, great The Wire, and reading this story brought to mind the first meeting of Stringer Bell's New Day Co-op, which brought Robert's Rules of Order to the Baltimore drug trade. Stringer, who was trying to turn himself into legitimate businessman, discovered that one of his denser subordinates was, per Robert's Rules, keeping meeting minutes. He tore them up and disgustedly asked the guy: "is you taking notes on a criminal f---ing conspiracy?"

Maybe, just maybe, that guy in Poughkeepsie kept a spreadsheet detailing his every pickup, sale, and delivery . . . .

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book review: Blacklist

Sara Paretsky, Blacklist (New York: New American Library, 2003; Signet 2004).

For years, I’ve loved V.I. Wawshawski, the brainy, tough female P.I. created by Sara Paretsky. V.I. is a smart-aleck, avowed feminist, and unabashed supporter of the Second Amendment, and she has a deep knowledge of and passion for the city of Chicago. In Paretsky’s later novels, V.I. is getting older, but she’s not always getting wiser: although she’s increasingly mindful of her work’s physical toll, she can still be stunningly impulsive and reckless.

Blacklist was published in 2003, but I somehow didn’t get around to reading it until late last year. What a pleasant surprise to discover that archives and records occupy a central position within the narrative! All of a sudden, I understood exactly why Paretsky, who has a Ph.D. in American history, was the keynote speaker at the Midwest Archives Conference when it met in Chicago a few years ago.

The mystery begins when Darraugh Graham, a flinty corporate chieftain for whom V.I. has long conducted background checks and investigated employee malfeasance, needs help with a family matter. His elderly mother, Geraldine Taverner Graham, has moved into a posh senior apartment that has a perfect view of the now-vacant family mansion. She’s convinced that people are moving about the property at night, but the police in the tony exurb of New Solvay don’t believe her. Darraugh wants V.I. to check out the place and ease his mother’s mind.

After visiting the Chicago Historical Society and quickly researching the Graham family’s history, V.I. pays a nighttime visit to the mansion and finds that she is not alone: a scared but defiant teenaged girl runs away from V.I. after the two exchange a few words. V.I. gives chase, but trips and falls into a brackish koi pond (Paretsky has a habit of making V.I. jump or fall into disgusting bodies of water) and discovers that the overgrown weeds in the pond are hiding a corpse.

V.I. discovers that the dead man is Marc Whitby, a journalist who had been researching Kylie Ballantine, a pioneering African-American dancer and educator. In the 1950s, Ballantine had been a close friend of Calvin Bayard, a publisher and civil rights activist V.I. has revered since her college days. V.I. also tracks down the girl -- Bayard’s granddaughter Catherine, who may or may not be hiding Benjamin Sadawi, a young Egyptian who worked in her elite private school’s cafeteria and is suspected of being a terrorist.

V.I.’s investigation of Whitby’s death propels her to focus ever more closely upon the connections between Ballantine and the Bayard, Graham, and Taverner families. She finds clues in papers held by Whitby and various members of the Graham, Taverner, and Bayard families, the Vivian Harsh Collection at the Chicago Public Library, and the University of Chicago’s Special Collections Research Center. Sifting through a large collection at the latter repository, she discovers a manuscript that allows her to untangle the knot of illicit romance, leftist politics, and anti-communism that bound the families together in the 1950s and continues to do so -- despite individual family members’ concerted efforts to break free -- fifty years later.

V.I.’s research leads her to Whitby’s killer, who is guilty of other crimes. She also finds Sadawi, who is unwittingly caught up in the Bayard, Graham, and Taverner families' shared history. However, she ultimately learns, much to her dismay, that the killer may evade justice and that the authorities are so convinced that Sadawi is a terrorist that they have no interest in the facts of his case. That a handful of Bayards, Grahams, and Taverners finally start to make peace with their past is scant consolation.

Paretsky is a sharp critic of the sense of entitlement that all too often accompanies wealth and privilege -- and the narcissism that is typically part and parcel of adolescence. She also sees distinct parallels between the McCarthyism of the 1950s and the anti-terrorist fervor of the 2000s, and Blacklist consistently underscores how self-righteousness and panic can trump common sense and wreck the lives of flawed but fundamentally decent people. Some readers might sharply differ with Paretsky’s politics, and even those who fundamentally agree with her might be happier if she had put a little less effort into polemicizing and a little more effort into fleshing out some of the minor characters. Those who love sprawling mysteries solved by smart, cynical detectives ought to enjoy Blacklist nonetheless.

Mystery-loving archivists ought to find Blacklist particularly rewarding. Paretsky clearly understands the value of archives and the everyday treasures they hold, and the archivists who appear at the margins of the narrative are uniformly knowledgeable and helpful; one suspects that they are modeled on the real-life archivists she thanks in the book’s acknowledgments. Archivists will cringe at the manner in which V.I. handles historical records, but they otherwise ought to be quite pleased by the way in which Paretsky highlights archives, records, and the continuing relevance of the past. What’s not to love about a mystery in which all of the biggest clues concerning murders and betrayals -- old and new -- are found within the archival record?

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Unalaska police report

Unalaska is a fishing community of approximately 4,000 situated on one of the Aleutian islands. It's not a glamorous place, and it doesn't attract celebrities or socialites. However, thanks to the records of its police department, it's better known than it would be otherwise. Owing largely to Sgt. Jennifer Shockley's dry wit and keen sense of the absurd, the department's weekly report has become a favorite of bloggers in Alaska and beyond.

As the following excerpts from the current report illustrate, the reports provide a snapshot of life in a small town and the activities of its first responders.
12/29/08 Mon 1202 Assault – Complainant reported he had been threatened and assaulted several times by a man to whom he owes a substantial amount of money for cocaine. The caller simply wished for police to be aware of the situation.

12/29/08 Mon 1948 Disorderly Conduct – Dispatch received a report of a fight at a local processing facility. When officers arrived, they contacted seven men, none of whom indicated there had been any fighting, only good-natured birthday fun.

12/31/08 Wed 1320 MVA-Damage – An intoxicated driver fled after he lost control of his vehicle and struck a parked car. An officer located the suspect driver, N.T.*, a short while later. T., 25 yoa, of Washington, was arrested for Driving under the Influence, Reckless Driving, Failure to Report an Accident and Failure to Show Proof of Insurance.

12/31/08 Wed 1732 Drug Law Violation – An anonymous caller provided information about illegal drugs on board a local fishing vessel. Officers seized the vessel and secured a search warrant after finding some paraphernalia on the boat. N.T.* [the same guy who was arrested for DUI earlier that day!] and K.W.*, 45 yoa, of Sitka, were both arrested on charges of Misconduct Involving a Controlled Substance IV when additional drugs and paraphernalia were found in their staterooms.

01/01/09 Thu 1520 Traffic Roads – A manhole cover refused to continue covering its hole, even after being replaced repeatedly.

01/02/09 Fri 1018 Suspicious Person/Activity – Caller reported a driver traveling in the wrong lane of traffic. An officer located the suspect driver, who was not intoxicated and admitted he had been traveling near the center of the roadway. The officer cautioned him not to take his half of the road out of the middle in the future.
From an archivist's or records manager's point of view, one of the most interesting things about the weekly Unalaska police report is the set of circumstances that led the department to start issuing it. According to the local paper, the Dutch Harbor Fisherman:
Sgt. Matt Betzen said that it began after the department switched to an electronic records management system, and the director at the time couldn’t use the system. The staff began summarizing their calls and incident reports into one report so that he would know what was going on, then started releasing the reports to the public.
Of course, from a strict records management perspective, an administrator's lack of computer savvy is not a good reason to begin creating a new series of records. However, as Sgt. Shockley points out in an e-mail interview, the department has discovered that the weekly report has real value:
In the most basic sense, it’s a PR tool. It lets the public know that we do actually have calls for service, no matter how inane and trivial they might seem, year-round. Not that anyone has actually suggested this, but I get the sense that some people believe a police department is largely unnecessary here. People sometimes assume that because Unalaska is a fairly small community, there must not be much work for a police officer to do.

There are admittedly a few weeks each year where we don’t get many reports about crime per se, but we’re still asked to perform quite a few public services, whether it’s unlocking a car, checking smoke alarms or collecting dead animals off the road. During the busy seasons, we’re dealing with quite a bit of what most people would consider “typical” crime – assaults, domestic violence, thefts, etc. The press release lets the public know what kind of crime we have here and, I hope, keeps the public aware that the public safety department is a necessary part of the community.
Sadly, the Unalaska Advertiser, which doesn't provide access to older reports, sees to be the only online source for the Unalaska weekly police report. However, its easy to bookmark the Police Beat page and to copy and save particularly interesting entries or sets of entries.

I always tell people that government records can be and often are a lot more interesting than they expect, but this is the first time that I've added a local government records series to my weekly must-read list. And I'm sure that there are other treasures out there . . . .

*Although the full names of arrested individuals appear in the police reports posted on the Unalaska Advertiser site, I've opted to include only their initials. The police report is a public record and information within it can be disseminated widely, but the online version of the 4 January 2009 report will be taken down when the 11 January report is posted. This blog post will remain online and searchable long afterward, and the individuals in question are private people who haven't yet had their day in court. I see no point in including their full names in this post.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Presidential Records Reform Act

Late this afternoon, an e-mail from SAA Executive Director Nancy Beaumont regarding the Presidential Records Reform Act (H.R. 35), the very first piece of legislation passed by the 111th Congress, started making the rounds. What happy news!

According to the National Coalition for History (NCH), which along with the Society of American Archivists and a number of other groups has pushed for legislation of this type, the Presidential Records Reform Act addresses a wide range of issues and concerns arising from President Bush's issuance of Executive Order 13233 in November 2001. Most notably, if the law makes it through the Senate and is signed by the president:
  • Former presidents will no longer be able indefinitely to delay the release of records covered by the Presidential Records Act;
  • Relatives, heirs, and designees of presidents will no longer be able to make executive privilege claims on a president's behalf;
  • Vice presidents will no longer have the right to assert executive privilege.
As the NCH notes, this legislation would restore records access and executive claim provisions that were, for the most part, set in place in an executive order issued by President Reagan.

The bill also addresses another records-related issue completely unrelated to Executive Order 13233. If passed, it
would also require the Archivist of the United States to deny access to original presidential records to any designated representative of a former president if the designee had been convicted of a crime relating to the review, retention, removal, or destruction of records" held by the National Archives.
This "Sandy Berger" provision is largely symbolic, of course, but it warms my heart; I've always believed that Berger should have done some jail time, and I'm glad that his infamy endures.

The NCH emphasizes that the Presidential Records Reform Act still has to clear the Senate, which despite Senator Joe Lieberman's concerted efforts has refused to pass other bills dismantling Executive Order 13233, and the White House. However, as the NCH notes, the composition of the Senate has changed, at least some Republican senators who formerly opposed such legislation may switch sides on the issue, and the President-elect is on record as supporting the revocation of Executive Order 13233.

Here's hoping that the bill text isn't diluted, quickly makes it through the Senate, and is among the first pieces of legislation signed by the new President.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Arizona State Archives in the news

"The Polly," 21 October 2008.

Last October, the good folks at the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records gave all of the archivists, librarians, and IT people who attended the PeDALS grant project meeting in Phoenix a tour of their brand-new facility, the Polly Rosenbaum Archives and History Building. It really is a fantastic facility, and my Arizona colleagues are truly blessed to have such a wonderful building -- and such public recognition of the treasures with which they work every day.

This morning, the Arizona Republic ran a lengthy article on "the Polly," which will be formally dedicated next Wednesday. It's a nice piece, and one of the most gratifying things about it is the comments section: after one commenter flippantly or ignorantly dismissed the facility as a waste of money, several others promptly and emphatically asserted that the state's history was priceless and that records of past decisions and events were needed to guide future policies. It's good to know that history and archives have friends out there . . . .

Saturday, January 3, 2009

"I was an archivist, yeah."

The Democracy Now Web site has just posted audio, video, and text versions of host Amy Goodman's 2004 interview with U. Utah Phillips, who died in May 2008. In it, Phillips looks back on his life as a rail-riding teen and young adult, soldier, peace activist, labor activist, anarchist, folksinger -- and archivist for the State of Utah.

Phillips became an archivist at some point in the 1960s, but was fired in 1968, when he ran for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom ticket. Although Phillips never again worked in a repository, his archival work left a lasting impression:
AMY GOODMAN: So, you were an archivist in Utah?

I was an archivist, yeah. I handled 75,000 cubic feet of public records. For an information junkie, that’s heaven. Yeah, I loved studying archival science, and I still have a library in my home that I curate, my own little research library of popular antiquities. And that’s where my mind lives when I’m at home.
In the interview, Phillips went on to denounce electronic records, which he viewed as dangerously unstable and vulnerable to alteration, and asserted that corporations had deluded libraries and archives into investing in digital technology. It's painfully obvious that Phillips hadn't engaged with the ever-growing body of archival literature relating to electronic records -- and that his politics led him to view digitization and electronic recordkeeping solely as conspiracies perpetrated by rapacious corporate interests -- but it's also plain that he continued to think about archival issues and to seek out archivists and librarians well after he gave up hope of finding another archival position.

To me, the most remarkable thing about Phillips's brief archival career is that he was hired in the first place: after high school, he joined the Army, moved from town to town, and then spent eight years at a Catholic Worker house in Salt Lake City. In 2009, his chances of getting archival job would be slim to none.

There's a running debate within the profession as regards the appropriate educational background for archivists. Should obtaining a master's degree be a prerequisite for obtaining a professional position? If so, should it be in history, library/information science, or archival science? What about dual-degree programs? Can on-the-job experience and immersion in the professional literature compensate for the lack of an advanced degree or an advanced degree in the "wrong" subject?

Even though I fall a few credit hours short of the mark, I believe that a dual M.A. in history and M.S. in library/information/archival science is the optimal credential. However, at times I wonder what we as a profession are losing as a result of our increasing emphasis upon having the "right" graduate degree(s). Will the profession eventually be dominated by people who have little experience of life beyond academe, and, if so, how will this situation affect our ability to document society in all of its complexity?

Having spent the better part of my twenties in a history Ph.D. program, I'm not exactly swimming against this particular tide. I nonetheless think that there should be a place in our profession for people with non-traditional backgrounds. I know lots of great archivists who have only one master's degree or bachelor's degrees and decades of work experience. There are also lots of people who become de facto archivists because they are passionate about the history of their communities or organizations or think that professional archivists have somehow fallen down on the job. We should reach out to these folks, some of whom instinctively "get" the basics of archival theory and want guidance re: preservation, etc.; doing so is one of the goals of the SAA roundtable that I currently co-chair.

Perhaps promoting archives as a second career would help to ensure that the profession remains grounded in the real world. I know plenty of people who went back to school and became archivists after doing other things: teacher, realtor, director of a non-profit organization, social worker, independent bookstore owner, seminarian, secretary, nurse, potter, actor, stay-at-home dad. All of them bring their past experiences to bear upon their current work (e.g., the former non-profit head knows the world of grants like the back of her hand).

Endowing a scholarship or two for prospective archivists entering the profession after at least a decade of doing something else might help, albeit in a small way, by supporting the education of a few archivists and raising the profile of the archives-as-second-career option. Maybe we could even figure out a way to pull a few wayfaring musician/agitators into the fold . . . .

Friday, January 2, 2009

Bush e-records: an update

A few days ago, I noted that the New York Times had, in my view, done less than a stellar job of explaining the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)'s implementation of a "contingency plan" for the transfer of electronic records created by the Bush White House. I'm happy to report that Julian Sanchez, who wrote a follow up piece on the Times story for Ars Technica earlier this week, is much more astute:

As the New York Times reported this weekend, many of those eager to get their hands on the outgoing administration's treasure trove of documents—like the folks at the National Security Archive and the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington—are skeptical of the Archives' ability to quickly absorb a data dump that the contingency plan estimates at "50-100 times the volume of electronic materials" left behind by the Clintons at the close of the millennium . . . .

Archives spokeswoman Susan Cooper argues that these concerns are exaggerated. She calls the Times story "misleading," noting that the contingency plan approved last month concerns only two types of data: the massive White House store of digital photos and the Records Management System that serves as the master index to most of the administration's text documents.

According to Sanchez, Cooper also challenged the Times' assertion that relations between the White House and NARA, which she characterized as "'cooperative and working'" were strained. This sort of cordiality isn't really consistent with the Bush White House's past interactions with NARA or handling of records-related issues, but I'm hoping that the imminent departure of President Bush has brought about a genuine change of attitude.

Sanchez provides an good overview of the "contingency plan," efforts to recover missing White House e-mails, and NARA's role in converting, at the time of transfer, all records created in proprietary formats (i.e., formats owned and controlled by software companies) to open formats (i.e., formats for which the full technical specifications are freely available to any software developer) that facilitate long-term preservation. He also wraps up with one of the smartest-- and most succinct -- media treatment of electronic records issues I've ever encountered:
. . . The eleventh-hour data migration may . . . make it harder to spot lacunae in the records before the president and his entourage are back in Crawford clearing brush. If the next administration wants to demonstrate its commitment to open, high-tech government, it can start by preserving its own records in open formats.
Here's hoping that the Obama White House takes this piece of advice -- and, better yet, uses open formats to create records, not just preserve them.

BTW, Sanchez's story is accompanied by a really cool nighttime photo of NARA's Archives I facility in Washington, D.C.; alas, there is no photo credit.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcome 2009

This morning, the first flower on my second Christmas cactus opened fully; its pale pink cousin, which peaked in early December, still has a couple of buds waiting to unfurl.

Rarely have I been so happy to see New Year's Day arrive. 2008 wasn't completely miserable: my friends and family all made it through the year alive and, for the most part, sort of happy, a major collaborative project that may help to shape the future of electronic records in New York State wrapped up successfully, and I got to see San Francisco and the Grand Canyon. However, between discovering that a trusted colleague was in fact a thief, experiencing some significant personal woes, learning that our crusading governor had a secret life, and watching as the economy tanked, it really was pretty lousy.

I fully expect that the theft, the abrupt resignation of the governor, and the recession will continue to have repercussions -- expected and otherwise -- throughout 2009, but for some time I've been hopeful about the new year.

I also hope that you are enjoying this New Year's Day and that 2009 brings all manner of good things to you.