Last week former President Barack Obama signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) which articulated plans to digitize and provide online access to all of the declassified records from his administration. I’ll get to that MOU in a minute once we recap how we got here. In 2017, Obama announced that his foundation would not be building a Presidential Library like every one of his predecessors dating back to Herbert Hoover, and instead construct a “Presidential Center” that will include a museum telling the story of his administration but no onsite research library. This plan is outlined in a New York Times article from last week that further explains some of the reasons why Obama has chosen to break with precedent in this way, including significant fundraising requirements for the federal portion of the library and a bevy of issues across the existing presidential libraries.
So why am I writing this post? Unlike (I suspect) most of the readers of the Times article, when I saw a link to NARA’s MOU announcement I clicked through and was eager to see what it contained. What I discovered was a ten page document that gave the outline of a plan to solicit bids from vendors to conduct this digitization work in the upcoming months and years. The general plan seems to make sense. NARA will retain custody of the records and has not changed its perspective on the Presidential Records Act. This plan may save money because NARA will not be responsible for maintaining another large facility in a new location. NARA will have to approve the vendor before the start of digitization work. However, I was left feeling skeptical due to my experience studying public-private partnerships in archives as well as my knowledge of NARA’s track record with electronic records.
My dissertation examined digitization agreements between state archives in the US and organizations like Ancestry.com. I’ll keep it brief but one key finding from my project was that the negotiation and contract writing phase of these project are extraordinarily important because they govern not just the digitization work, but the future of access to state records for years to come. When I read the Obama-NARA MOU, I was looking for some specifics to reassure me that the bids coming in to digitize these 30 million or so pages of paper records would conform to some standards and best practices in the digitization and digital preservation communities. Unfortunately, the MOU contained no such comfort. The bids will all need to reference metadata specifications, technical details, and information security measures, but nothing in the MOU referred to NARA’s Digitization Guidelines from 2004 or made it clear what other standards compliance would be required from a winning bid. The Obama Foundation is going to select a vendor and seek approval from NARA for their choice, based on these agreed upon criteria. I read this MOU as full of good intention but short on the sorts of details that would convince me of the likelihood that this plan will be executed on time and budget.
Another important thing I learned while working on my dissertation was how the importance of enforcement and public sector vigilance in these partnerships. In order to produce a positive outcome, the representatives of the public sector need to do everything in their power to write a strong contract and then enforce its terms. The public sector needs to be asking the right questions in order to ensure that they are protecting the rights of the American people, in whose name these records were produced in the first place. For example, will the vendor produce the minimum required metadata to comply with NARA standards or strive to generate more? What types of access are expected with the proposed system and will that enable enough people to find and engage with the records they want to read from the Obama Presidency? What will the access system for these records actually look like? I’m concerned that their control over this digitization process is giving the Obama Foundation too much control over the former president’s records during a critical phase of their lifecycle, which is the reason why the Presidential Records Act exists. The foundation is preparing the RFP which will hopefully include more specifics and the answers to the above questions plus more.
One thing I emphasize to my students is that digital preservation is fundamentally about trust. When we create digital surrogates of paper records, or when we provide access to large collections of born-digital materials, we as archivists ask for the trust of our users that what we’re serving them over the internet is worthy of their trust. Dissertations, family histories, court cases, and other work of users are based on these digital documents and we must do everything we can to build their trust in our holdings. What I’ve seen in this MOU does not provide enough detail to indicate whether or not any vendor selected to digitize Obama’s records will be held to a high enough standard to build trust into the access system for these presidential records that will not have a permanent home which includes a public reading room. This makes the building of that trust all the more critical. For now, I take the good intentions of NARA and the foundation at face value and look forward to picking apart the RFP when it is released.
Reading through this agreement and the plethora of #hottakes that have accompanied it, I will play the role of a consummate academic and keep asking questions while observing closely. I agree that the presidential libraries model was/is in serious trouble, but am not yet convinced that this new path forward will yield better results for the nation and for users of archival records. There has already been a great deal of digital ink spilled on this topic. For more, here are some links to resources I’ve been reading as I formulated my thoughts on this situation. While I’d like to remain optimistic, I am waiting for more detail before I feel confident that Obama’s declassified records will be made available online once the five year window following his presidency has elapsed.