Monday, December 7, 2009

First Librarian Heads National Archives

One would assume that both the Librarian of Congress and the Archivist of the United States would be positions held by librarians, archivists or individuals trained in both disciplines. Historically, this has not been the case.

Until last month when David S. Ferriero officially became the United States Archivist, a librarian had never held the top position as administrator of the National Archives and Records Administration. The position requires a political appointment and confirmation by the United States Senate. Ferriero is the first librarian by trade to preside over the Archives and his counterpart at the Library of Congress, Dr. James Hadley Billington, is only the third librarian to hold his position. If you consider that the first Librarian of Congress was appointed in 1802 and the position of Archivist of the United States has existed since an act of Congress created the National Archives Establishment in 1934, it is amazing and rather unusual that so few trained librarians and archivists have held these two positions. Interestingly enough, neither of these positions have been held outright by women (both have had female acting administrators, but only during times of transition between appointed administrators).

Unfortunately, the Librarian of Congress and the United States Archivist have previously been political heavy weights that have contributed to the success of partisan politics and their individual parties. As is common in politics, these individuals have been rewarded for their efforts and loyalty by a presidential appointment. This has been disadvantageous to the general preservation and accessibility to some of the nation's most important documents, both because administrators have not always been trained in the field of libraries and archives and because in at least one case, ethical questions have arisen because of their partisan association with the White House. Ferriero represents a drastic departure from the previous administration of the Archives. Ferriero's predecessor, Allen Weinstein, acted in a partisan fashion and agreed to a policy that was detrimental to researchers, historians, political scientists and the general public, and will be so for years to come. In 2006, Weinstein agreed to "reclassify" or withdraw from public access documents that were deemed essential to national security. This agreement was forged between the National Archives and government agencies like the CIA.

Though Weinstein's transgression is merely the most egregious acts of sitting United States Archivists, the question of ethics and partisan secrecy could be asked of other former Archivists and Librarians of Congress. Take for example John J. Beckley, the first Librarian of Congress. Prior to his appointment as Librarian, Beckley served as the first political campaign manager in the history of the United States and is credited as the father of the political party system. Clearly, Beckley's partisanship could have played a role in the accessibility and preservation of certain documents, especially those critical of his party and those that might damage the reputation of his political associates. Beckley's successor, Patrick Magruder, was a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives and presided over the Archives during the infamous War of 1812 burning of the capitol building. Magruder resigned after an investigation into the fire and the use of Library of Congress funds. John Meehan was appointed Librarian of Congress by Democratic President Andrew Jackson and during the final years of the Whig Party. Meehan's tenure represented a time when conservative supporters advocated limits on the size of and number of materials housed in the Library of Congress. It is hard to imagine that a Librarian of Congress would actually turn away historical materials, yet Meehan did. John Stephenson who held the post after Meehan was a physician by trade and to this day it is unclear why Stephenson would have wanted the post and why he was appointed. At the National Archives, John W. Carlin who was appointed by President Clinton had a background in politics. Having served in the Kansas House of Representatives and as the Governor of Kansas, Carlin was appointed administrator of the National Archives and Records Administration directly following a failed bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. It could certainly be said of Carlin that his partisan affiliations may have influenced his decisions with respect to access and preservation of government documents.

Ferreiro will undoubtedly have his work cut out for him. At a time when archivists nationally are dealing with the growing reliance of government agencies on digital documents and accessibility to such documents is being openly debated, the pressure to provide examples of how best to manage these materials is being placed on the National Archives. Ferrerio, as NARA's administrator, presides over a system that includes the National Archives in Washington, D.C., the National Archives at College Park, Maryland (known as NARAII), ten affiliated archives, the presidential library system (consisting of the libraries and papers of Presidents Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and the library under construction of George W. Bush), and fourteen regional archive facilities in eleven states.

In addition to the overwhelming task of providing leadership for a system of archives and libraries as expansive as NARA's, Ferreiro will be forced to address access issues surrounding the Presidential Records Act which was significantly damaged by Executive Order 13233 (signed into law by President George W. Bush and quickly revoked by President Barack Obama). Ferreiro will encounter both Bush's damaging executive order and his general beliefs about executive privilege as the George W. Bush Library, the thirteenth presidential library in the NARA system to be located in Dallas, opens and becomes subject to Freedom of Information Act Requests beginning on January 20, 2014. Additionally, Ferreiro will be at the helm while a major collection move happens--the transferring of the Nixon papers currently housed at NARA in College Park to join the rest of that collection housed at the Nixon Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California.

With professional responsibilities as vast and daunting as these, why would anyone, trained in the discipline or not, seek this particular political appointment? I suspect Ferreiro, like his colleagues in the field of library and information sciences and archivists, political scientists, and historians, would say that this position is crucial to preserving America's history.

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