Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Politics of Paper

Earlier today I noticed a comment following a post at Red State Rebels that merely fed an ongoing annoyance of mine. Opponents of Hillary Clinton don't seem to understand the circumstances surrounding her papers and still are jumping to the conclusion that the delayed release of these materials is a dishonest attempt on the part of the Clintons to preserve their legacy or protect their reputations (or even her bid for the White House). Please do not misunderstand this as any sort of defense of Mrs. Clinton, I assure you it is not.

First, I cannot claim to know what materials are in fact housed in the Clinton Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, nor can I claim that there is nothing contained within that library that would in any way embarrass the Clintons. However, I can speak to the condition of presidential, congressional, or otherwise political papers. They are not in any working order that would allow a researcher to locate and use any particular material in a timely fashion until much time has past since the donor has left office.

What does that mean? Well, let's take for example Senator Strom Thurmond's papers housed at Clemson, all 3,500 cubic feet of them. Clemson lists the collection under their Special Collections department and of the 3,500 cubic feet donated in portions beginning in 1981 and ending around Thurmond's death, the only portion of the collection available to the public via their website is the collection of speeches from Thurmond's political career ranging from 1935-1983. Of the thirty-two series (portions of the collection), only twenty-three are available to the public at the Clemson library. I am assuming that the rest is still being processed. For those of you that, like me, were unable to comprehend what 3,500 cubic feet means the Clemson site lists the collection as follows:

3,500 cu. feet (on 950 shelves) of manuscript material; 10,000 photographs; audio-visual material, computer tapes, cartoons and certificates; 25 bound volumes; 211 rolls of microfilm; and over 3,000 artifacts.

Taking into the account that the majority of Thurmond's career spanned a period when technology was not the "keeper of records" that it is today, I cannot fathom the amount of paper contained in that collection.

Now, realizing that Thurmond offered the first donation to Clemson in 1981, twenty-six years ago, and its processing has had at the minimum a full-time political manuscript archivist, a full-time staff, and numerous student interns as well as volunteers, it is still not all that surprising that the entire Thurmond Collection is not available to the public and still requires processing.

Thurmond's papers were not bogged down in issues of security clearances, classified material, and sensitive legal materials. Also, Clemson's library more than likely saw this as their number one priority and most valuable collection (with John Calhoun's a close second). In contrast, the National Archives and Records Administration, responsible for the processing, preservation, and stewardship of the Clinton papers, is responsible for approximately fifteen presidential libraries across the nation, including that of four-term occupant of the White House Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Simple math and common sense concludes that given the approximate time of donation (January 2000 when leaving the White House), size of the collections contained therein, and security/privacy considerations (declassification, restrictions, and closures), the Clinton papers will take a substantially longer period of time to process than Thurmond's papers or any other set of political papers.

Yes, one can make the argument that Thurmond was in office for much longer than President Clinton. Yes, one can say that the papers in question are only those of former First Lady Hillary R. Clinton. Yes, one can argue that things have changed since Thurmond's donation (I'm talking positively about the Presidential Records Act of 2007 and Freedom of Information Act, negatively about President Bush's Executive Order 13233).

No, none of these things support the constant criticism Hillary Clinton's campaign is receiving due to the lack of accessibility and release of some of her papers as first lady.

It takes years to process political papers. Define process? Sure. Cleaning them up, removing staples, detaching sticky notes, removing all materials incompatible with the acid-free environment required to preserve these historic documents. Then there is the organizing, the chronological ordering, alphabetizing, topical arrangement. Processing takes years. None of these things are deterred by the process of declassification that must come next. The red tape of bureaucratic Washington takes years. Declassification of one item on a military exercise that took place in 1993 could take years. It's a time consuming ordeal.

I guess my annoyance with this constant commentary on the dishonesty of the Clintons because Hillary's campaign isn't pushing harder for all of her papers to be available to the public is justified in my knowledge of what it takes to complete a political manuscript collection. I guess my annoyance is that Americans that hear this banter on television about her papers won't know what the real story is behind it, but rather will take at face value the statements of her opponents when they claim that this matter of her papers is directly linked to her trying to deceive the American voters.

There is nothing glamorous about archives and there is certainly nothing speedy about archivists.

When Barack Obama goes on the Sunday news shows and says he has a problem with her not making her papers public and then responds to the question about his papers while serving in the state legislature with the comment that they just didn't keep that stuff and he kept his own schedule, I want to shout at the top of lungs of the injustice of not preserving history.

Give her a break, guys. She can't rush the archival process any more than a pig could decide to fly.

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