Tag Archives: archives

History of Records Law in the United States, Part 2

Welcome back! My last post in this intermittent series considered the records implications of the grievances articulated by the colonists in British North America against King George III in the Declaration of Independence, making it more of a prequel to US Records Law because the United States was not an independent country in 1776. This post will cover the first law passed by the United States Congress which addressed issues of records and information management, the Records Act of 1789, formally known as an Act to provide for the safe-keeping of the Acts, Records and Seal of the United States, and for other purposes. This was just the fourteenth law passed by the first Congress!

The act itself is broken up into seven sections, in which a number of information management issues are addressed. The first section, however, simply renames the Department of Foreign Affairs as the Department of State, the name by which this executive branch department is still known today. The second section is where things get a bit more interesting for our present purposes. It directs the Secretary of State, upon receiving information about the passage of a new law by congress, to “cause every such law, order, resolution, and vote, to be published in at least three of the public newspapers printed within the United States, [and shall also] cause one printed copy to be delivered to each Senator and Representative of the United States, and two printed copies duly authenticated to be sent to the Executive authority of each State; and he shall carefully preserve the originals, and shall cause the same to be recorded in books to be provided for the purpose.” 1 Stat. 68 (Chapter 14)

Here, we see the recognition that providing access to the law of the land was a fundamental responsibility of the newly formed federal government. As newspapers were a vital channel for information dissemination in the colonial and early republican eras, this was an obvious choice for the nascent federal government to utilize in spreading the word about new laws across the country.

Thanks to the magic of the Library of Congress’ digitization efforts, we have an example of this process in action to examine. Here’s the link to a printed version of this very law: U. S. Laws, S. (1789) An act to provide for the safe keeping of the acts, records, and seal of the United States, and for other purposes. New York: Printed by Thomas Greenleaf. New York. [Pdf] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2020767853/. This broadside printed in New York City would have helped spread the news of this law’s passage.

Interestingly, the responsibility around these records and information management tasks were placed within the Department of State in this law. As one of the original cabinet departments established by George Washington, this agency has a long and wide-ranging history and has been involved in many different activities over time. Remember that the National Archives and Records Administration will not be founded for 145 years! How many laws concerning records management in the federal government will be cover before then? Well, you’ll have to stay tuned and find out in my next post! For now, that’s all on the Records Act of 1789 and the first attempt by Congress to regulate the management of government information in the new United States.

History of Records Law in the United States, Part 1

This will be the first in an ongoing series here on my site where I plan to introduce and explore the laws and policies which have governed records in the United States throughout its history. In a number of the courses I teach, historical perspectives on contemporary information issues have proven to be useful for my students and I’ve regularly included these explanations as part of my lectures. To get my thoughts on these laws down on (virtual) paper, and to see what I’ve missed along the way when thinking about these topics, I will be moving through records management legal history here on the blog! With that, let’s get into the Declaration of Independence, that foundational national document which identifies records management as a concern for the then-rebellious British colonies.

The Declaration of Independence does not begin with its most famous phrase but rather with the more demure “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…” articulating the fact that this document represents an intention to break away from Great Britain and establish an independent country. Following this, the famous line “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” appears, establishing an ideal for the country that we’ve been holding ourselves to ever since. After these first two paragraphs, a majority of the rest of the document consists of a list of grievances the colonists have against King George III. While some of these may be familiar to those readers who have taken courses in American History, one important grievance (for our present purposes) takes aim squarely at the records and information management practices of the crown, and how this was used to rule the 13 colonies in ways that they felt was unjust.

The fourth listed grievance states “He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.” This appears before complaints about garrisoning troops in colonial homes, taxation without representation, and manipulation of the colonial judiciary. What the Second Continental Congress acknowledged with this statement was how important records are to the functioning of a representative government.

Through his powers as King, George III had the ability to dictate where colonial legislatures met. However, given that during the late 18th century copies of records, laws, and judicial decisions were not plentiful in the colonies. Therefore, when a colonial legislature was forced to meet in a secondary city, they did not always have access to the public records which they could use to conduct business, advocate to the crown, or interpret royal proclamations. This was an issue for colonial leadership as they sought to govern themselves and assert their own identity to the monarch across the ocean. When understood alongside other perceived royal misdeeds, this situation led the continental congress to vote for independence and freedom from Great Britain, leading to the Revolutionary War and the ultimate establishment of the United States as a nation of its own.

While the Declaration of Independence is not itself a records law, this important clause illustrates the an awareness of the power of information, and access to it, animated some of the conversations around American independence. As we will see in the upcoming posts in this series, other founding documents of the nation address issues related to records and information, with impacts that have lasted for centuries to come. See you then!

NB: The text I’m referencing for the Declaration itself is located here- where else but the National Archives?

What Should We Make of Obama’s Library Plans?

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.


Earlier this month I visited Kazakhstan to give a series of lectures at the Presidential Archives as part of the Second Annual Summer School for Young Archivists, as well as in Shymkent at the Regional Archives. I had an amazing trip and really enjoyed meeting new colleagues, sharing my experiences working here in the US, and traveling around a new country and region of the world I’d not been to before. Here are links to my slides from each of the presentations I made:

The author holding a falcon, wearing Kazakh robe and fur hat.

Mausoleum of Khoja Ahmed Yasawi

I want to extend many thanks to my hosts from the US Embassy in Kazakhstan, especially Elina Akhtiyarova for inviting me on this trip and coordinating everything. Thanks are also due to the Director of the Kazakhstan Presidential Archives, Boris Japarov and Bastar Eskarayev, the Head of Archives in the South Kazakhstan Region who both hosted me at their institutions. Thank you so much! Рақмет!

Web Archiving #Brexit

Like many of us around the world, I’ve been following the news out of the United Kingdom after the country voted to leave the EU late last month. In the aftermath of the vote, many Britons were shocked to discover that some of the “Leave” campaign’s promises related to the money paid to the E.U. by the United Kingdom were not going to come to fruition. These are documented across the web, but this succinct Boing Boing post highlights the attempts by these politicians to erase their old campaign website from the internet. Thanks to the Internet Archive, it continues its life as a cached copy, documenting the change to the website which removed content relating to increasing funding for the National Health Service, among other social programs. I was struck by the power of web archiving to document political movements as they are represented online, and how they make it more difficult for politicians to eliminate potentially embarrassing content from the internet.

This article reminded me of another excellent example of the power of web archiving, from the New Yorker article “The Cobweb” by Jill Leopore. She explained that the internet archive also preserved a copy of a website maintained by Ukrainian separatists which appears to show that this group was responsible for downing the Malaysia Airlines flight which went down over Ukraine on July 17, 2014. Why was this particular site was crawled by Internet Archive bots? Well, because:

Anatol Shmelev, the curator of the Russia and Eurasia collection at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford, had submitted to the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library in California, a list of Ukrainian and Russian Web sites and blogs that ought to be recorded as part of the archive’s Ukraine Conflict collection.

I recognize that these two events are not particularly related, other than the fact that web archiving figures in our attempts to understand current events and monitor how people represent themselves and their politics online. As more of our collective lives as humans are lived out in digital spaces, resources like the Internet Archive will only become more valuable as a way of piecing the past together. If you haven’t explored the Wayback Machine, give it a shot! I guarantee you’ll find some really interesting/fun/terrible/amazing old websites on there, just punch in a few domains and have fun…

(P.S. Jill Lepore is the best. Her first book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity was a major inspiration for my senior honors thesis in History. Read it! Or, at least read more of her articles in the New Yorker, they are awesome.)

Archival Articles on Wikipedia

My regular readers will know that I edit Wikipedia from time to time, and that I am a doctoral student in an iSchool who studies archives. I was therefore overjoyed to attend this session at the Society of American Archivists annual meeting this August. The session chairs, Dominic McDevitt-Parks and Sara Snyder, successfully signed up new editors for Wikipedia accounts and introduced them to the basics of editing. As a group, we even made some progress on a few articles relevant to archives. A wiki page documenting the session is located here.

I fully agree with the goals of this session: to increase the quality of Wikipedia articles which relate to archival concepts, archival institutions, and archivists. Since August, I have been looking for opportunities to edit archival articles. Now, this term I am working as a Graduate Student Instructor (also known as a TA at universities not named Michigan) in a course on archival access systems. During a recent lecture, my lead instructor provided an overview of many of the archival software platforms that exist today. Following along, I happened to google Archon and ended up on its Wikipedia page: Archon (software). I was dismayed to see that the article was not up to date and listed the tool as in active development when in fact it has merged with ArchivesSpace and is no longer maintained. I made a mental note to follow up and edit this page to reflect the most current information.

A few days later, when I returned to complete my edits, I noticed that someone else had come in and begun my work for me! A sentence indicating the inactive status of the project was tacked on to the end of the article. I still made some edits, cleaned up the page, and made sure that things were up-to-date. However, during this time I discovered that ArchivesSpace itself does not have an article yet. That’ll be a task for a later date.

You may be asking yourself- what is the point of this story? Well, if you see an article related to something having to do with archives that needs work, edit it! I did a bit of writing on a small article and discovered a much larger task that I will tackle in the upcoming weeks.

What wiki-event is happening at SAA next year?? I’m there!