Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The PAHR Act & Historical Record Access

With news today that former President George W. Bush's presidential library will in fact be located at Southern Methodist University, despite angling on the part of Baylor University for it, there has to be a certain amount of intrigue out there as to what Bush will make public. There are rules that govern the record keeping of presidents and the public access to those documents within a reasonable time frame, but this particular president, with what appeared to be a disdain for the United States Constitution and a demand for secrecy through over exercise of executive privilege, may draw a line in the sand between the public right to know and the protection of national security (at least we can assume based on his past statements that this will be his argument for keeping records closed).

The concerns of archivists, historians, political scientists, and many others who support the accessibility to presidential records were greatly placated by an executive order issued by Obama just after he took office that more or less reversed the damaging and secretive policies of the Bush administration in regard to the Presidential Records Act. However, there are plenty of concerns remaining as to how Bush's papers will be released. Without question, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) will do a timely, thorough and professional processing of the documents. It is simply a matter of what Bush will attempt to keep closed and Bush and his administration actually recorded. Certainly, if we had access to the complete records created and maintained during events such as the invasion of Iraq, the Valerie Plame outing, and the firing of the U.S. attorneys, questions about these events wouldn't continue to surface in the daily news. At this point, it is a waiting game.

In the June 29, 2009 issue of Newsweek, Michael Isikoff noted that President Obama has not lived up to some of the promises he made as Senator and candidate Obama in regard to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. His predecessor was notorious for denying public access to White House logs and other materials. Obama has refused to grant access to some White House logs requested by the mainstream media. His promises of transparency have not erased the criticisms of some, including the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) who have as recently as recently as June continued to encounter road blocks when filing FOIA requests with the Secret Service for access to White House logs that would list health care executives that have visited with President Obama and other high-level White House employees. CREW has also taken on the issue of missing White House emails.

Despite all of this evidence against transparency and the preservation of records essential to the understanding of current events and recent history, there is a bright spot in the realm of records. A bill introduced by Congressmen Hinchey (D-New York) and McHugh (R-New York) is currently in the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives and would "authorize the Archivist of the United States to make grants to States for the preservation and dissemination of historical records."

The PAHR Act (Preserving the American Historical Record) is an important piece of legislation, especially at this time of constantly evolving record formats, that would support preservation at the state and county level. The bill would create formula-based grants that each state would be eligible to apply for. These grants would allow for state and local governments to preserve their own historical records. According to information provided by the Society of American Archivists, of which I am a member, the funding projections in this bill list Idaho as the potential recipient of $363,302 for the preservation of its own historical record. These funds would be available, if applied for, to public, private, and university libraries, the Idaho State Historical Society, county historical societies and local governments wishing to preserve their own records.

There are numerous records projects taking place currently in this state. The Stallings Collection at Idaho State University is in the final stages of its three-year processing; the gubernatorial papers of Dirk Kempthorne are being processed at the Idaho State Historical Society; the Basque Collection at Boise State University is expanding; and the Idaho State Historical Records Advisory Board continues to do fabulous work.

Undoubtedly, Idaho could benefit from outside grant funds available for the continued preservation of Idaho history. It is my hope that the anti-earmark and fiscal conservative congressman in the first district will support this legislation and I will be writing to my congressman here in the second district to urge his support of this legislation because I believe preserving our historical record is one of our greatest responsibilities to future generations of Idahoans.

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