Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Gubernatorial Papers

Alas, some good news for Idaho historians. In a week that has not been kind to former Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, now U.S. Secretary of the Interior, we learn via the Statesman that the former Republican governor is finally releasing his gubernatorial papers to the Idaho State Historical Society.

Certainly, as the Unequivocal Notion points out, there is a possibility that the former governor's people have done some "scrubbing" and what remains of the gubernatorial papers may leave much to be desired. Whether or not Kempthorne has transferred any of his papers produced while serving in the governor's office to the files he accumulated as both mayor of Boise and as a U.S. senator representing Idaho back in D.C., files that are presumably to be the property of the University of Idaho and closed to the public for twenty-five years, remains unknown.

As I pointed out back when the news broke that Kempthorne had not donated his papers to the state archive as a majority of the Idaho governors who had served before him, depending on who has had access to these papers and depending on their respect for any material in their path on the way to finding what they were needing, the papers may be a mess.

Randy Stapilus, no stranger to Idaho political history himself, writes over at Ridenbaugh Press:
Some assessment and organization time will be needed before they’re all released. Here’s hoping that’s a lot less than 25 years, and hopefully less time than since Kempthorne left office (about two years ago).
My initial reaction to this was that two is better than twenty-five. However, Stapilus' hope that the papers will be released within two years is a stretch. Serving just over seven years in the governor's office undoubtedly created a lot of paper. Each governor has their own style, process, and staff that results in different filing systems and differing amounts of collective paperwork. Additionally, depending on how up-to-date computer systems were in the statehouse during Kempthorne's tenure, the amount of material retained digitally could potentially impact the overall collection. Regardless of how these materials were retained, an archivist will need to review all materials, arrange those materials, and prepare an inventory or finding aid for future researchers.

Having spent the last two and a half years of my life processing the congressional papers of former Congressman Richard Stallings, I understand the feat being undertaken by the state archive. Granted, this is what they do, stewardship of state records is what they were created for, and there are highly trained and qualified archivists on staff, but that does not detract from the sheer amount of work that is to be done. With one full-time archivist devoting their time only to the Kempthorne papers I would guess the full processing would take anywhere between three to five years. This does not mean the papers will not be open to the public sooner, they will simply not be processed in their entirety, something that surely detracts from their usability.

Quoting the Statesman:
For two years, about 500 boxes of Kempthorne's papers have been sitting in the bowels of the Department of Administration, access given only with Kempthorne's approval. Requests by scholars, journalists and members of the public for his records were generally turned down.
500 boxes? Going back the Stallings Collection, originally 266 boxes contained therein and it will take the 2 1/2 years already spent plus at least another 6 months. Multiply that by approximately two and we can assume it will take nearly six years for the complete processing of the Kempthorne papers--given the staff availability and time is comparable.

I have worked on many occasions with the state archivist as well as other staff archivists at the Idaho State Historical Society. There work is immaculate, but that work takes a great deal of time and attention. Archivists do a tedious job that can only truly be appreciated by other archivists and the researchers who will eventually used the finished product for their own purposes. Rarely have I encountered a collection that is so completely and perfectly organized and processed that it makes my job as an historian easy. However, two collections I have done some research in that have been an absolute delight and success for my research purposes are housed at the state archive in Boise. I have every confidence in the final result of projects undertaken there.

My initial frustration, as was the frustration of many following the story, with Secretary Kempthorne not releasing these papers was that of state history and the fact that these papers are public property--produced at the expense of Idaho taxpayers. Further frustration mounted as I realized the depth and importance of these papers to developing and continued political issues that began under Kempthorne's administration. These papers are important to public policy and they are public property. They will soon be available to all who wish to see them at the state archive, the very haven of public records and state historical ephemera.

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