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Let the Records Show…

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dwight Vick
March 13, 2023

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I heard the news. Former President Trump, President Biden and former Vice-President Pence were under investigation for holding classified documents. I yelled, “How? National Archives strongly controls this information.” Then remembered my White House days and went, “It could happen” and sat back in my chair. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) employees are overworked and underfunded as are so many of our brethren public sector librarians.

When I was a doctoral student at Arizona State University, I was awarded a White House internship. I was assigned to the Domestic Policy Council. One of the staff members departed and Carol Rasco, President Clinton’s advisor, reminded the staff member to send all relevant information to National Archives. The staff member uttered an explicative and rubbed their brow then said, “The law is so broad. What I think is appropriate, someone in Archives doesn’t and vice versa.” In the end, the person sent everything except emails about arranging lunch with a friend which was not political in nature. 

According to the Presidential Records Act of 1978, regarding incumbent president’s records, there is no public access to any record. Presidents and vice-presidents are required to separate public and personnel records while in office. Once the person leaves office, all records transfer to the custody of the Archivist who is responsible for custody, control, preservation and access to those documents. They must be sorted as quickly as possible and gradual access is then provided over the next 12 years, available through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Congress faces similar rules and regulations.

According to Congress.gov, any classified materials must be stored in a secured space and remain in the Sergeant-at-Arms custody. Only cleared committee staff members will be present when the classified information is reviewed. Under the Security Procedures policies passed by the Rules Committees, any national security information that is classified Confidential or higher must be received in the committee’s executive session. The Chairperson and Ranking Member establish committee procedures to determine what can be disclosed. However, all decisions must be made within the confines of House or Senate rules and applicable law. In practice, if a room is secured within a Congressional members’ home, said member can access these documents there. Otherwise, the information remains available to the appropriate member until the information can be made public. NARA is always involved in both cases.

I could see how a member could take information to a secure location. The law and NARA’s enforcement of it is strict.

But there was one other factor, the budget.

National Security Archives, a website managed through George Washington University, NARA’s budget has been flatlined for 30 years. Meanwhile, the amount of presidential and/or classified papers have increased exponentially. For example, President G.H.W. Bush’s electronic communications total 20 gigabytes while his papers cover 1634 cubic feet of space. Thirty years later, President Trump’s electronic communications totaled 250 terabytes and four cubic feet respectively. I worked with several Southside Chicago community leaders who negotiated with President Obama’s Presidential Library staff on a community benefit agreement. My contribution to their work was primarily researching the history of presidential libraries and their impact on their communities. Former presidents are under exceptional scrutiny to save their papers, working with NARA staff on storage and warehousing them in a secure, climate-controlled environment until the libraries are established. Then as now, NARA staff are overwhelmed and under funded by both Congressional members and presidents, regardless of political party, since 1991. 

How can NARA employees effectively manage expansion brought on by the Information Age if they are underfunded, understaffed and overwhelmed? I suspect, no, I know, they perform their duties in every way. Underfunding libraries and lack of personnel support is an epidemic among our public sector librarians.

It seems to me that the most popular complaint among my college librarian friends is the cost of acquisitions and databases. This impacts college budgets and student access to vital information they need to research and write papers. Local libraries provide more than just books.

Arianna Robolini, a reporter with the online news website Buzzfeed, listed eight community services that public libraries perform: 1) provide databases and subscriptions; 2) provide e-books, audiobooks and e-periodicals; 3) provide music, television and movie streaming; 4) provide language tools for all languages spoken in their community and provide services to the blind; 5) encourage college preparatory, job preparatory and tutoring classes; 6) host cultural events and community programs; 7) archive and digitize documents; and most importantly 8) provide human contact for anyone asking questions—even the strangest ones imaginable. And they do it on a shoestring budget. 

We all depend on our local libraries and NARA, for they are a bastion of democracy in action. A constant theme in my PA Times contributions has been, and continues to uplift our bureaucratic brothers and sisters by recognizing their work and advocating for ourselves. Like the teacher, college professor, police office, fire fighter, emergency responder, social worker and local librarians are on the front lines defending democracy by serving as the face of government in action, NARA officials need to know they are not alone in the struggle.

Let the record show that support.

Author: Dwight Vick is a regular contributor to PA Times.  He is an instructor with Texas A&M International University in Laredo, TX and Excelsior University located in Albany, NY.  He is a licensed high school teacher specializing in social studies and English.

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