Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Documenting Leadership: getting gubernatorial records right

New York State’s recent gubernatorial history isn’t particularly well-documented. The state’s current governors’ records law, which was first enacted in 1858, allows outgoing governors to do whatever they wish with their records, and one former governor transferred some records to the New York State Archives but may have taken other records with him when he left office. Another is still hanging onto his official records. Yet another left Albany unexpectedly and in great haste, and his successor is still actively using his records.

The records of most 20th-century governors are better preserved, but they’re literally all over the place: the gubernatorial records of Franklin D. Roosevelt (1929-1932) and W. Averill Harriman (1955-1958) are now held by the State Archives, but the records of Herbert Lehman (1933-1942), Charles Poletti (1942), Thomas E. Dewey (1943-1954), Nelson A. Rockefeller (1959-1973), Malcolm Wilson (1973-1974), and Hugh L. Carey (1975-1982) are held by other repositories throughout the state.

Dick Thornburgh

There are a number of reasons for this situation, among them the aforementioned gubernatorial records law and the newness of the state’s archival program, which was established in 1978; New York may be one of the original 13 colonies, but the New York State Archives is the nation’s youngest state archives. However, the Documenting Leadership symposium, and in particular the remarks of Michael Whiteman (Whiteman, Osterman, and Hanna), who worked for Governors Rockefeller and Wilson, and the keynote address by former Pennsylvania Governor (1979-1987) and U.S. Attorney General (1988-1991) Dick Thornburgh shed light on some of the factors that, in the absence of good records laws, promote the preservation of gubernatorial records:

A general appreciation of history and historical research. Thornburgh is a lifelong reader of history books, and noted that he was struck by the high value that authors place upon archival records documenting the thoughts and actions of their subjects. Moreover, he drew upon his own records when writing a book, and several researchers wanted access to them shortly after he left public life.

A sense of one’s own place in history. Michael Whiteman noted that it’s not surprising that the Rockefeller and Wilson administrations are likely among the best-documented in New York State’s history: Rockefeller was the scion of one of the nation’s most prominent families and clearly believed that he was doing significant things. Thornburgh led the state’s response to the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, and although he did not discuss the impact that this experience had upon him, it may have helped him see himself a shaper, not a mere observer, of history. However, he did note he saw his archives as one means of ensuring that his legacy would not be left entirely to “the tender mercies of the media.”

A propensity to keep, not toss, stuff. Thornburgh is a self-described “pack rat,” and at the time he became governor, he had a large collection of materials relating to an unsuccessful Congressional campaign stored in his attic. They ended up in the hands of a family friend -- now his official archivist -- who spent the next eight years organizing them. The friend then went on to care for his gubernatorial records and to oversee their transfer to the Pennsylvania State Archives and to help him establish a permanent archival home for his voluminous personal papers.

Willingness to live with a little embarrassment. Thornburgh has concluded that the benefits of allowing researchers to access files reflecting his status as the client of a private attorney or gubernatorial counsel outweigh the risk that embarrassing information might come to light. Of course, governors who have left public life are more likely to take this view; those who still harbor political ambitions will likely be less relaxed about the thought of allowing unfettered access to their official records.

Ongoing involvement in and support of archival programs. As Michael Whiteman noted, Nelson Rockefeller and other members of the Rockefeller family established the Rockefeller Archive Center in order to ensure that their activities and those of the philanthropic organizations were properly documented. Working with the University of Pittsburgh Library System, Thornburgh developed a full-fledged archival program that focuses on his personal papers and those of former colleagues. He has been active in raising the funds needed to staff the program and hold public events, publish a newsletter, give awards to law students seeking to enter public service and to professors who use archival records as teaching materials, and digitize the collections. In both instances, the level of personal commitment to sustaining an archival program -- and to ensuring that gubernatorial records are supplemented by personal papers that document the broader context of a governor’s life and work -- is pretty impressive.

I nonetheless remain convinced that the above things work best when combined with, not forced to serve as substitutes for, modern public records laws and effective records management. A strong tradition of proper management, preservation, and provision of access to gubernatorial records -- another thing that New York State lacks -- also helps.

1 comment:

MK said...

Very interesting, thanks for posting this. I sent a link to the Archives & Archivists' listserv.