On the Great Secret-Keepers
Do Archivists Have Political Motivations Too?
Archivists are the great secret-keepers of history, caught in a negotiation between the past and future. Restrictions and withholding policies serve as their bargaining chip, allowing them to secure information about yesterday and keep it hidden from public view today, in order to ensure the release of once-classified information tomorrow. The sacrifices of the present, then, pave the way for the revelations of the future.
These details of the profession—in particular, withholding policies and their reversals—came into the spotlight this July, with the release of a now-infamous taped phone call between then-President Richard Nixon and then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in which Reagan uses racist language.
After an explosive piece in The Atlantic, which called attention to this finding, journalists drew comparisons between the casual racism of Nixon, Reagan, and Trump; Reagan’s daughter Patti Davis wrote about the tears she shed upon hearing the tape; and many pointed out, on social media and in thinkpieces, that Reagan’s racism is not, in fact, anything new, especially to Black Americans.
Buried within many of these stories was the fact that this tape was not a new discovery within the archives. It had belonged to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) for decades, but the full tape had previously been withheld from the public “to protect Reagan’s privacy,” said Tim Naftali, a Clinical Professor of Public Service at NYU and founding director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. A partial tape of the conversation had been released in 2000, with the racist portion withheld.
In 2018, Naftali filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, asking NARA to re-review the tape; Reagan’s death in 2004 would have eliminated the previous privacy concerns. The complete tape was released online through the Nixon Library and shortly afterward, Naftali wrote a piece for The Atlantic that drew all eyes to its contents.
The release of the full tape raised questions about the power of the privacy exemption to FOIA, which bars researchers from gaining access to documents that would “constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” These terms remain broadly defined, allowing the exemption to be deployed in a range of circumstances, with varied outcomes for researchers. Nixon’s tapes pose particular challenges to researchers due to the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which shifted presidential records from private to public ownership in the wake of Nixon’s resignation; certain Nixon records remained private in the aftermath.
The withholding of this specific tape, however, raises questions about the use of this exemption for legacy-protecting and the neatening of history. “[W]hen things are restricted in this way, the agenda becomes more important than the facts,” said Angela Brinskele, Communications Director for the Mazer Lesbian Archives.“What will be important to remember about this time and what evidence and voices are going to be missing when we look back?”
For archivists at state and federal institutions, agreeing to restricted access now can pave the way for increased access later. “[T]here are times when accepting an access restriction can be an effective means of acquiring an important collection of papers,” said Matt Veatch, State Archivist at the Kansas Historical Society.
But the concern for accessible archives is growing under the Trump administration, which has proposed massive budget cuts to National Archives operations and further limited access to government records. According to the FOIA Project, an online “FOIA accountability engine,” the first year of Trump’s presidency saw a surge in the number of lawsuits filed in order to obtain federal records.
In 2018, CBS News reported that the Trump administration had set a new record for denying FOIA requests, noting that 78 percent of requests made resulted in either censored files or no files whatsoever. Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior has come under internal scrutiny for allowing presidential appointees to review FOIA requests relating to themselves before those records are released, The Hill reported.
Diminishing access to records places archivists in a unique position in this historical moment. “Right now is a good moment to look around and think about what information is being recorded and preserved, and who and what is falling through the cracks,” said Mel Leverich, Archivist & Collections Librarian at the Leather Archives & Museum. “What will be important to remember about this time and what evidence and voices are going to be missing when we look back?”
Archival activism has taken on new forms in order to combat decreased accessibility, taking into consideration the ways in which climate change endangers cultural repositories, or the necessity for archived material presenting human rights abuses, so perpetrators cannot deny the abuse or exploitation they enacted. Newly-discovered and created collections such as activist archivist Marion Stokes’ 70,000 tapes of television, or growing digital archives of Latinx history through the diaspora allow the preservation of ephemera once deemed marginal.
At the 2019 Archives Records Conference, sponsored by the Society for American Archivists and the Council of State Archivists, presenters highlighted the need for diverse collections and inclusivity in archival holdings as well as the need for more diverse hiring practices, particularly for persons with disabilities. A 2017 report by Ithaka S+R, commissioned by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation revealed that among surveyed academic libraries, the staff is overwhelmingly white, especially in senior library positions.
“There is an emerging commitment among archivists to expand the scope of that documentary heritage to a broader range of communities, and to include those communities directly in the act of assembling their archives,” said Matt Veatch, State Archivist at the Kansas Historical Society.
Advocacy groups and historians alike say that increased FOIA withholdings can have dire consequences for them, as key information about governments past and present can be deemed private, and as a result, remain withheld.
“[O]ne of the most important developments in this fight has been the emergence of the journalist/archivist—those people and groups whose motivation is to find and share authentic, reliable evidence and to interpret it for the public,” archivist, recordkeeper, and privacy professional Cassie Findlay said.
The National Archives and Records Administration, for its part, insists it remains impartial. “The mission of [NARA] is to safeguard and provide public access to the nation’s high-value federal records,” a spokesperson from the National Archives Press Office said via email. “Our role is to protect and preserve those records and make them available to those who need them. We do not interpret the records or form value judgments about them, leaving that kind of analysis to historians, journalists, and other commentators.” A FOIA request for further guidelines used to classify records as private was not granted in time for this story’s release.