The Society for History in the Federal Government presents:
The Annual Richard G. Hewlett Lecture and Dinner
“The Role of Federal Historians in Records Management”
CLYDE’s of GALLERY PLACE, 6–9 pm, Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Lincoln Bramwell, US Forest Service
KC Johnson, historian, Brooklyn College, CUNY
Paul Wester, the National Archives and Records Administration
On October 24, 2012, SHFG members and their guests enjoyed a fine meal at Clyde’s of Gallery Place in Washington, DC, and conversation with colleagues from numerous federal agencies, and then heard from a panel on “The Role of Federal Historians in Records Management.” The far-reaching panel discussion made it very clear that we historians and record keepers live in an extremely critical and consequential time for our profession. At issue was the rapidly expanding body of electronic federal records and our unpreparedness to identify and preserve the most important collections.
The evening brought together three panelists with very different roles and backgrounds to discuss new government-wide initiatives and how they can be most effectively implemented to resolve our records crisis.
President Barrack Obama and his administration recognized this serious dilemma in his Presidential Memorandum of November 28, 2011, the most extensive executive initiative on the issue since the 1950 Federal Records Act. The memorandum stated that “proper records management is the backbone of open Government,” but that “the surge in information could overwhelm agency systems, leading to higher costs and lost records.” He empowered the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to develop and manage a 21st-century “framework,” in cooperation with federal agencies, to improve preservation processes and save valuable records.
The memorandum and the follow-up directive to government agencies on August 24, 2012, from Archivist David S. Ferriero and OMB Acting Director Jeffrey D. Zients, established valuable goals and more effective procedures for records management. But these envisioned a technocratic and procedural set of solutions that did not define or delve into critical agency-level decision-making processes in records preservation—the the processes for identifying and saving the most historically valuable series. These core issues have long been central to SHFG’s mission and membership, and the panel did not fail to highlight them.
KC Johnson, a historian at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, started by noting the absence in the President’s memorandum of any role for historians in decisions on records preservation. He also emphasized the relevance to this debate of the historian’s general role in the promotion of the value of federal records. Most nonfederal historians, political scientists, and journalists, he noted, don’t spend much time with federal records. It has increasingly become the obligation of federal historians to highlight and demonstrate the importance of these records for the public and our national heritage. We can use the Web more effectively, he noted, citing the State Department and U.S. Senate web sites as leaders in access to federal documents. But federal historians must take on that advocacy more strongly within their agencies.
Lincoln Bramwell, Chief Historian at the U.S. Forest Service, used his own experiences to stress the positive results that can emerge from a cooperative relationship between historians and archivists. When he started at the Forest Service, he found the records schedules to be legalistic and procedural, and worked to provide the historian’s perspective on what records are historically valuable. That teamwork allowed his agency’s records team to save valuable CCC records when funds became available from the American Recovery Act in 2009. He also thanked NARA archivists for their valuable support his efforts to recover federal records.
Paul M. Wester, Director of Modern Records Programs at NARA, explained his program’s efforts to work more closely with federal agencies to improve records management, scheduling, and transfer. That new framework, mandated by the President’s memorandum, includes better identification of electronic records, training of senior executives in each agency, and improved records retention. The task is daunting, considering that there are at least 270 agencies and programs, each with its own special management needs. Yet, NARA now has greater enforcement authority than ever for records management reform.
The differing perspectives, each one with its own priorities, revealed the enormity of the problem and suggested some solutions. Questions to the panel raised several important issues. First, we need to train and educate all agencies in efficient business practices, as the volume of electronic records continues to expand exponentially. Then, we must improve agencies’ appreciation for records management and preservation, and allocate more resources to those ends. But these management processes must not be strictly procedural; they require the historian’s involvement and trained perspective if the records saved will help preserve useful knowledge of our past. Raymond Smock stressed this point in his Trask Lecture earlier this year (http://shfg.org/shfg/events/trask-lecture/). But even historians, attendees noted, can’t fill in the historical gaps when records have not been retained. These same issues of records preservation were enmeshed with the activism surrounding SHFG’s founding in the late 1970s, for the protection of the government historian’s role goes hand in hand with the protection of and access to the most valuable federal records. The evening’s discussion brought back an awareness of these central issues and impressed all present how, in our electronic age, they have become not only more complex, but also more urgent.
— Benjamin Guterman
For more information:
President’s Memorandum – Nov. 28, 2011 http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/11/28/presidential-memorandum-managing-government-records
The Archivist’s Directive – Aug. 24, 2012 http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/memoranda/2012/m-12-18.pdf