Archives and the Public Good: Accountability and Records in Modern Society

Edited by Richard J. Cox and David A. Wallace. Westport, Conn.: Quorum Books, 2002. vi, 340 pp. Index. $60.00 (SAA members); $70 (non-members). ISBN: 1567204694.


Review essay published in American Archivist (Vol. 66, No.2, Fall/Winter 2003)


The modern publishing industry fights a constant battle to convince consumers that the old cliché that “you can’t tell a book by the cover” is untrue. Design and marketing people look for pictures and color schemes that will make the book leap off the sales table at Barnes and Noble. Publicists twist arms to get blurbs from big names proclaiming, “this book changed my life.” And editors press authors to accept a properly enticing title, preferably with a number in it like “Seven Highly Effective Ways to Lose 100 Pounds in Less than 8 Days.”

What, then, do we make of a book that arrives in the mail with a plain maroon cover (no pictures, no blurbs, nothing but the title and the author) and an almost deliberately bland title consisting of nondescript words and phrases like “accountability,” “records,” “public good” and “modern society?” That the book is about archives would only seem to reinforce the further cliché that archives are a boring and bland topic. Yet, in fact, the book disproves at least this cliché since the nondescript packaging hides a remarkably lively book about a remarkably lively topic. The medium is definitely not the message here.

What is the message? The title proves only partially helpful. Editors Richard Cox and David Wallace explain that they sought to assemble case studies “focusing on the intersection between record keeping and accountability,” which presumably explains the subtitle (although the title’s reference to the “public good” is not similarly explicated). “Accountability” offers an accurate but too capacious framework for the volume. While most of the essays address the theme of “accountability,” the word doesn’t explain the selection of articles. Technical studies of how credit card companies or the Social Security administration maintain backup copies of their records in safe locations deal with “accountability” but not in ways that would make them candidates for inclusion here.

A more helpful gloss on the book’s content comes when the editors describe how their collaboration grew, in part, out of their shared conviction “about the importance of records in our society and the need to educate professionals . . . that records are not only artifacts for use by historians and genealogists but . . . the glue that holds together, and sometimes the agent that unravels, organizations, governments, communities, and societies” (1). In other words while the cover and title whisper that archives and records are unimportant, dead, and safely left to others, the fourteen essays (and eighteen authors) collected here scream the opposite: records matter deeply, they affect our lives in the present, and you ignore records at your peril.

They do that through persuasive and readable case studies of the ways that records do matter and how they can become the sites of active contention in the present. One way they matter is in determining whether people will go to jail. Co-editor Wallace—in one of the strongest essays in the book—provides a compelling overview of the role of records in the Iran-Contra scandal—a subject he knows well from his dissertation on the White House e-mail “PROFS” case. Throughout the scandal, key developments centered on efforts to suppress documents as well as the discovery of documents. Over and over, “elected and appointed federal officials worked aggressively to hide, destroy, and manipulate the documentary trail bearing on the scandal.” They shredded, hid, and lied about documents and tried to keep classified anything that they failed to destroy. Oliver North and John Poindexter deleted almost 6,000 email messages—a time-consuming task in the absence of any mass delete option in their primitive email system. In one afternoon, North, his secretary Fawn Hall and another staffer destroyed an eighteen-inch stack of documents and North continued his energetic shredding even while nearby Justice Department officials were looking for documents.

Although it distressing to watch of government officials obliterating the past, this tale also offers a slightly more encouraging lesson: documentation has become pervasive in modern society that even dedicated shredders like North and Poindexter find it hard to sanitize historical record completely. North, for example, forgot to destroy a key memo that spelled out the diversion of funds that was central to the scandal. North and Hall doctored documents but Hall—distracted by the festival of shredding—neglected to destroy her file copies of originals. And, perhaps most disastrously for them, North and Poindexter’s email deletions came a cropper because they didn’t realize that the White House Communication Agency kept backup tapes. Lest we draw too happy a moral from this, keep in mind that the shredding, classifying, and hiding of documents dragged out Independent Counsel Lawrence Walsh’s investigation for six years, limited the scope of the prosecutions, and forced him to drop his key conspiracy charges against North and Poindexter.

In Canada, in the 1980s as well, the absence of adequate records also hindered a prosecution—in this case of Nazi War Criminals who had slipped into Canada after World War II. There, the public “scandal” initially focused on the archivists, who it was charged—either through a deliberate cover-up or in a “monumental blunder”—had recently destroyed the immigration records needed to convict and deport the ex-Nazis. But, in one of the most thoughtful and complex essays in the book, Terry Cook shows that the destruction of the records followed normal procedures and, in any case, those records would not have been of any real assistance to prosecutors. Cook, however, does not stop at defending himself and his colleagues; he also acknowledges that the harshest critics of the Archives had a point in arguing that records retentions policies, as a whole, reflected “the lack of enthusiasm by the government in pursuing war criminals vigorously” at the end of World War II.

Such—often-belated—efforts to come to terms with crimes of the past result in previously neglected records mattering a great deal. Greg Bradsheer provides a detailed chronicle of how the (U.S.) National Archives and Record Administration (NARA) records relating to “Nazi Gold” suddenly became extremely popular in the mid –1990s. Individual claimants, their lawyers and representatives of foreign governments and companies (as well as journalists, authors, and historians) crowded Archives II trying to determine who was owed what, who was going to have to pay, and who was to blame. “Not since the ‘Roots’ phenomenon of the mid-1970s,” he writes, “has NARA experienced such a large and sustained research activity on a single topic” (177-78). Records were similarly crucial to compensating the victims of the infamous “Tuskegee Syphilis Study,” which left African-American men with syphilis untreated. According to Tywanna Whorley, “the government did not begin to discuss the possibility of a settlement until after the records concerning the study were found in the National Archives” (169).

While these cases involved grievous historical injustices, they also reveal how records come to matter when large sums of money are at stake. David Gracy II describes some fascinating cases of document forgery where money was often the motive as when James Addison Reavis concocted an incredibly elaborate set of document forgeries as the basis of his claim to 11 million acres of land in the Southwest. Equally large sums of money were at stake for the Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company, which (unsuccessfully) sued the University of California, San Francisco, Library to remove a collection of damaging documents from its reading room and to block it from posting them on the Internet—a story ably told by Robin L. Chandler and Susan Storch. Records also had enormously financial consequences in the collapse of Jamaica’s indigenous commercial banks in the late 1990s, which set off a continuing economic and social crisis for that island nation. As Victoria L. Lemieux explains, inadequate records creation and recordkeeping practices were crucial factors in the bank failures. (Think microfilming technique is unimportant? Well, part of the problem was that poorly trained microfilm camera operators produced black or blank films that made it impossible to track suspected fraud.)

Records also matter when they emerge at the center of historical, rather than just financial, accounting. Nowhere has this been more true in recent times than in South Africa, which initiated an extraordinary public process of historical reckoning know as the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” But, as Verne Harris shows in his rich study, that search for “truth” was hampered by the systematic destruction of records relating to the state security apparatus that took place in the final, dying years of the apartheid regime—a record of record destruction that surely left Oliver North and Fawn Hall green with envy. When the new democratically elected government took power in May 1994, it found that “a massive deletion of state documentary memory had taken place.” The protracted demise of the regime meant, “unlike counterparts in the former East Germany, Kampuchea and other countries, South Africa’s apartheid leaders had had plenty of time to do the job thoroughly.” Still, as with Iran-Contra, “surprising pockets of public records survived the process, even within the security establishment” (p. 218).

And, finally, sometimes records turn out to matter so much that they lead to bitter disputes over ownership or control. James O’Toole engagingly recounts “the strange case of the Martin Luther King, Jr., papers,” in which Coretta Scott King and her allies at the Center for the Study of Non-Violent Social Change sued Boston University (BU) to get back the papers her husband had given to the university before his death. Shelley Davis offers a lively, but depressing, tale of her crusade—largely unsuccessful, alas—to get the Internal Revenue Service to retain and make available its historical records.

One of the reasons that most of these case studies are so detailed and compelling is that more than half of them come from insiders. Given the IRS’s mania for secrecy, only someone like Davis, who spent eight years as its official historian, could take us “inside the secret culture of the IRS” (to quote the subtitle of the book she wrote about her experiences). Similarly, the extraordinary detail in Verne Harris account reflects not only his work as member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s investigative team with responsibility for investigating the destruction of records but also his earlier role as the person who leaked the word of the record destruction to the African National Congress.

Yet inside accounts do not always provide a fully rounded story. O’Toole amusingly informs us that BU had much more carefully catalogued the papers of Roddy McDowell than Martin Luther King even though the former were restricted until the year 2100. (Is there a scandal about the making of The Planet of the Apes that we don’t know about yet?) But we never learn why BU was so careless with such an important collection—information not available to O’Toole as the expert witness for the King family. Davis scathingly indicts historians and archivists for failing to back her up, but we want to hear the explanation of the professional societies for this lapse. At times, the first-hand accounts appear self congratulatory as when Greg Bradsheer quotes Stuart E. Eizenstat saying “Mr. Bradsheer of the National Archives has really done truly heroic work in opening and indexing and cataloging . . . all of this information.” But, at their best, insiders like Terry Cook offer thoughtful self-reflections on their own roles in the events being described.

If the book has a larger theme than “records matter,” it is that openness and access are good things. “[A]ggressive oversight and power to seize the documentary records provides one of the few means by which democratic accountability can be secured,” writes Wallace. “Let the people know the facts and the country will be saved,” concludes Anne Van Camp by way of quoting Abraham Lincoln in her review of the State Department’s move toward greater openness. Such sentiments are surely shared by most readers of this journal. But as most readers also know, other factors often come into tension with the commitment to preserve records and make them available. But studies of egregious cases of the destruction or suppression records—as in Iran-Contra, South Africa, or the IRS—are not necessarily the best forum for engaging these dilemmas. Still, they do emerge periodically in this volume. For example, Terry Cook notes how space pressures undercut the desire for a complete historical record. And Whorley’s study of Tuskegee raises the difficult problem of privacy. She argues that African Americans will continue to distrust government accounts “until the government grants access to all the information it has on the study” (170). Yet fully opening the record would expose the patient records of still living men with syphilis and their families.

But the volume is not really intended to provide fully rounded histories of these archival episodes or to engage philosophical or technical issues in archival practice. Rather the editors sought to “provide powerful narratives for the classroom” that would communicate “the significance of the roles records play in constituting society” (2, 1). In this, they have succeeded wonderfully. This would be perfect volume to assign to beginning students in archive or public history courses—except for the small matter of the $68 price tag. A paperback version is badly needed and while they are at it, they might try a new title. How about “Fourteen Ways Records Matter: Tales from Eighteen Archivists Who Are Saving the Past for the Future?”


Department of History, George Mason University