Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, and Gates: Quarrelling About the Preservation of the Documentary Heritage of the United States
First Monday
Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, and Gates: Quarrelling About the Preservation of the Documentary Heritage of the United States

Within the past six months a debate has ensued about the utility of documentary letterpress editions in the late twentieth century as a means for preserving archival records of the United States. The catalyst for this debate was the decision by the U. S. National Historical Publications and Records Commission to revise its funding priorities away from the documentary editions in favor of state regrant projects and research and development in electronic recordkeeping systems. Much of the debate about this proposed change focused on the value of traditional printed sources in the Information Age. This essay looks at this debate in three contexts: the nature of documentary editing; the relationships and respective missions of historians, documentary editors, and archivists; and the nature of records and recordkeeping technologies. My perspective is that of an archivist, and my conclusion is that documentary editing needs to re-orient itself to using new technologies to provide access to the archival documents managed by the editorial projects.


The Current Debate
Historical Context 1: Documentary Editing and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission
Historical Context 2: Archivists and Historians
Historical Context 3: Changing Recordkeeping Systems and Access
The Real Debate and Issue: The Importance of Records

The Current Debate

In the last months of 1996, a war of sorts erupted in the seemingly placid pools of documentary editors, historians, and archivists. In November the U. S. National Historical Publications and Records Commission, a small granting agency operating within the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, issued a new strategic plan to guide the use of its $5 million in funds [1]. The Commission, a federal body usually quietly handing out small grants for the preservation and maintenance of America's archival or historical records, suddenly entered into a maelstrom of controversy.

The contested strategic plan suggested changes in the Commission's funding priorities, targeting grants for state historical records projects and for research and development projects, especially for support of new approaches for the management of increasingly complex electronic recordkeeping systems. Dropping lower on its list of priorities was the Commission's support of documentary editing projects, such as The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and the Adams Family, some that had been in progress for over half a century. In a statement issued in mid-January, the Commission explained its actions in a remarkably straightforward fashion. It noted that the "previous plan contained seventeen objectives at four levels of priority." These objectives were reduced to four, with two identified as priority: "In the revised plan, priority will go to grants for improvements in documentary fields (research and development, tools, training, publications), and to grants for state collaborative efforts to meet documentary needs (state plans, state regrant programs, and work under collaborative agreements)." The revised plan also brought with it a "simplified mission statement" that read: "The NHPRC exists to carry out its statutory mission to ensure understanding of our nation's past by promoting, nationwide, the identification, preservation, and dissemination of essential historical documentation." A new set of factors to evaluate grant proposals was also suggested: "Usability: the relative usefulness of the material to be published; Availability: the relative current availability of the records to be published; Ability to Complete: the relative prospects for completing publication of the records to be published; and Productivity: the relative rate of progress of a project."

Historians and their allies cried foul, in such a way that suggested that the very core of our American heritage was now in jeopardy. The joint statement of the Organization of American Historians and American Historical Association captured the sense of moral outrage shared by the critics:

Whereas, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) since its founding in 1934 as NHPC (National Historical Publications Committee) has had a mandate to foster a national program of publishing historical documentary editions; and Whereas, Congress in 1974 expanded the Commission's mandate to support the collection and preservation of nationally significant records; and
Whereas, historical documentary editions provide the American people with a lasting legacy and physical and intellectual access to a broad range of its fundamental historical documents; and
Whereas, the Commission members of the NHPRC voted at its November 1996 meeting by a narrow margin to adopt a strategic plan that places no historical documentary editions projects or nationally significant records projects in its first level of funding priorities.
Therefore, the Executive Board of the OAH [the AHA used the same wording in its resolution] asks the Executive Director of the NHPRC to provide time at a future Commission meeting to reconsider the strategic plan, thus giving to constituent groups an opportunity to examine the issues its adoption raises, and to comment to the Commission on their findings at that meeting [2].

This statement raises certain questions about the interpretation of the Commission's original mandate, just how the "American people" is really benefiting from these editions, and the degree to which "constituent groups" had really been excluded in the Commission's deliberations.

This organizational statement paled in comparison, however, to the statements issued by some individual historians. Constance Schulz, the American Historical Association's representative on the Commission, prepared a statement for the use of the National Council for Public History. Schulz provided a history of the Commission that she interpreted as being "firmly rooted in the belief that preservation of the nation's fundamental documents was important but not sufficient: that 'major publication efforts under existing conditions of scholarship' were also needed to ensure that 'the most important source materials for American history, using the term history in its broadest sense' were also 'readily available to scholars and leaders in all fields.'" Schulz considered the continuing meager funding of the Commission for all of its projects, noting that this has "forced" the Commission "into a long and often divisive struggle to balance the relative importance of 'records' and 'editions' projects." She also added to the pressing needs the challenges of the "addition of new technologies - not simply electronic capabilities of the recent past, but of microphotography and related issues before that." Schulz also suggested that the revised strategic plan came as a result of the Commission's Executive Director, Gerald George, recommending his plan instead of one being prepared by an ad hoc committee made up of Commission members, leaving "no opportunity for the constituencies who use historical source materials, either in the form of documentary editions, or as original records in archives and manuscript repositories, to comment on how these changes in funding priorities would affect their individual interests [3]."

All of this, in Schulz's mind, "constitutes a reversal of what have been the historical primary goals and objectives of the NHPRC - support for scholarly editing and publication of nationally significant documentary materials since 1934, with availability of grants in behalf of that goal since 1964, and grant support for preservation of and creation of intellectual access to significant records in archives and manuscript repositories since 1974." This commentator noted the importance of more recent efforts by the Commission to address concerns with electronic records, while suggesting that the "Commission's meager funding can do relatively little to address across-the-board solutions to these problems." Finally, Schulz added a plea for calm among the various constituencies, believing that "we are spending our energies and time fighting each other for a claim on the distribution of these limited appropriations, rather than directing those same energies to demanding more nearly adequate funding for all of these priorities."

Again, this statement raises interesting points worth reflecting. Has the historic mission of the Commission been compromised by the revised strategic plan? Are electronic records issues simply the most recent challenge facing those concerned for the management of the country's documentary heritage? Was this plan the result of an action by a federal agency not allowing for ample comment? Was the debate an unfortunate misuse of energies by those dedicated to the protection of the documentary heritage?

The most remarkable shot fired in what turned out to be the early stages of this new records war came from Raymond Smock, former Historian of the U. S. House of Representatives, in an article in the February 14th issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article's title, "The Nation's Patrimony Should Not Be Sacrificed to Electronic Records," was as sensationalist as anyone could get. Smock referred to the documentary editions as things that should not be criticized because they are "monuments to this nation with more majesty and enduring value than the monuments we build of stone and steel." Inherent in the essay was Smock's somewhat condescending characterization of the archival profession, using J. Franklin Jameson's seventy year old statement that Smock interprets to mean that "historians should not rely on archivists alone to make decisions about what history to save or to publish." Smock obviously believes that the reason the Commission revised its strategic plan was due to some insidious influence by archivists (archivists would be overjoyed, I suspect, to think that they were so influential). Central to the threat to the documentary editions was the "National Archives' overriding concern about preserving electronic records." Smock alludes to a statement made by Archivist Carlin that "solving electronic records issues was a higher priority for him than the publication of the papers of Thomas Jefferson." Smock believes the "handling of electronic records should be a completely separate issue from support of editions of documents that are an important part of our national patrimony." In any event, he believes that "much larger government agencies than the National Archives, with much larger budgets and technical staffs, probably will make headway on electronic records long before the National Archives have the resources to do the job properly." Smock goes to the defense of the historic mission of the NHPRC, with the remarkably ahistorical statement that "robbing the grants for documentary editions to carry out research and development on electronic records flies in the face of the very purpose for which the publications and records commission was established." In this statement, perhaps a bit more dramatically, we see the same concerns about violations of the Commission's original mandate, the important of the editions to the American people, and the false or poor objective of diverting funding to electronic records. To his credit, Smock does resurrect an older idea of mobilizing for fund-raising to acquire a much larger pool of resources, but he also makes perfectly clear his priorities [4].

Some historians also complained that this new strategic plan was the result of political motivation. In the February 1997 issue of the Newsletter of the Organization of American Historians, Archivist of the United States John Carlin, who by virtue of his position chairs the meetings of the Commission, answered such insinuations directly:

The charge of political motivation is not true, but what if it were? What if the NHPRC changed its strategic plan solely to increase its appeal to the White House and the Congress? And what if the change worked? That is, what if we actually secured an increase in the NHPRC's annual grants appropriation, which is currently only $5 million dollars, unchanged from the amount NHPRC had in 1990, and only $1 million more than it had in 1979? Would it be so terrible if the NHPRC made itself politically appealing enough to reverse seventeen years of inflationary erosion of an appropriation that was inadequate from the start? The bigger question might be, why has the historical profession let that erosion happen?[5]

Carlin's abrupt dismissal of this charge certainly stems from his conviction that the revised strategic plan is dealing with the practical limitations of the current ways that the Commission doles out its grants. "The rationale for the revised plan is simple," argues Carlin. "We are giving priority to activities through which our scant funds can have the widest impact. Our investments in R&D will help documentary editors and archivists at all levels, nationwide, learn to deal with electronic technologies for creating, preserving, and providing access to information of historical value." This is hardly a radical argument or change.

The official response by the Commission to these resolutions and individual charges was one of deliberation. At its meeting on February 20th, 1997, the Commission decided to withhold approval of the revised plan and to provide an opportunity for the plan's critics to make their case at its next meeting, scheduled for June 1997. The Commission requested that these groups consider the following questionns:

  • How should the legislative history of the NHPRC affect decisions on how the Commission allocates its resources?
  • How effectively have past NHPRC allocations met the statutory objectives of the Commission?
  • What public benefits should the Commission seek to achieve in the context of entering a new century, with changing circumstances in technology, user expectations, and scholarly communications?
  • What is an appropriate way for the NHPRC to determine, in principle, how its funds should be allocated?
  • What are the implications of the new strategic plan for the NHPRC's ability to achieve its statutory objectives? [6]

At the mid-June Commission meeting, it was decided that the documentary editions for the nation's Founding Fathers would be restored at a top level priority for the Commission's funding objectives, adopting the recommendations proposed by the Commission's Executive Director exactly a month before to restore support for the documentary editions as a top level priority. It is difficult to surmize if any of these questions were really answered, even though in the June 19 press release issued by the National Archives announcing the Commission's decisions Archivist Carlin was quoted that "We've had a good, long debate over priorities, but the Commission is now reunited around goals that deserve the support of all Americans." All we can really ascertain from this controversy is that Founding Fathers attract media attention, documentary editors and their historical allies are more adept in politics and advocacy than archivists and others responsible for the preservation and management of hundreds of millions of archival records, and that the challenges of a society increasingly utilizing electronic information technology are still not really understood by historians, the media, policymakers, and many others.

The facts of this case, and the larger issues at stake, can be seen only by considering three important historical contexts for the current debate, not by stressing the often emotional and inflamed threats to the publication of the papers of individuals like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. First, it is important to have some understanding of the history of documentary editing and the Commission as a supporter of a variety of agendas related to the preservation of the documentary heritage. Second, it is crucial to understand something about the relationship of historians, documentary editors, and archivists, for this may be the most important element of the debate. And third, we must keep in constant view the evolving nature of the technologies used to create records for bodies like the Commission. And, when all is said and done, we must re-consider the importance of records for society, not just scholarly users of archival records.

Before proceeding further, I must also add a bit of personal history here since my own professional career is wound tightly about the Commission and encompasses my own experience as editor, archivist, archival planner, archival educator, and researcher in new ways to manage electronic records. I started my career as an archivist in late 1972 being hired to prepare a microfilm edition of the Calvert Family Papers (the Calverts were proprietors of colonial Maryland) at the Maryland Historical Society, a project funded by the National Historical Publications Commission. At the end of that decade, in my new capacity as Baltimore City Archivist and Records Manager, I secured an NHPRC grant to prepare a guide to the records of the Mayor and City Council, records extending back to the City's incorporation in 1797. In 1983 I went to work at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, initially funded by the NHPRC to prepare a statewide plan for the management of Alabama's historical records. In 1986 I became part of the staff of the New York State Archives, again funded through an NHPRC project to plan for a statewide system for providing advice to local historical records repositories [7]. Finally, in 1988 I came to the University of Pittsburgh School of Library and Information Science (now School of Information Sciences) to develop a graduate education program for the training of archivists and records managers. Even in this most recent capacity I have been involved with two NHPRC grants. The first was support of an ongoing institute for government archivists to assist them in developing programs for electronic records management. The second was a research and development project to prepare requirements allowing for the maintenance of records in electronic information systems; this latter work was, in fact, cited by Archivist Carlin in his OAH Newsletter article as an example of the kinds of research and development projects being needed [8]. So, I have been involved in most of the kinds of projects that NHPRC has historically funded, while endorsing the need to make substantial changes for the future of the Commission.

Historical Context 1: Documentary Editing and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission

Documentary editing has a rich and full history in this country. Many of the early historical works, dating well back into the seventeenth century, were often lengthy strings of quotations, varying in accuracy of transcription, taken from key historical documents. John Winthrop, first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, wrote a journal that was intended for many purposes - helping other early settlers adjust to the New World, capturing his own changing ideas about the colonial venture, and leaving for posterity a record of the initial days of the colony; this kind of history-memoir-archive was typical of much of the early writing in colonial America. Thomas Prince, another New Englander, published in 1736 his A Chronological History of New England, with copious quotations from early records. Numerous other such volumes appeared in the first two centuries of American settlement [9].

The protection of key historical documents was always present in the minds of some Americans, partly as a justification for claims in the mounting crisis with England and, later, to create a stronger sense of the rich history and destiny of the new nation. In 1778, in the midst of the American Revolution, Ebenezer Hazard wrote to the President of Congress, Henry Laurens, and proposed publishing a "Collection of American State Papers." Hazard's argument was that this would "furnish Materials for a good history of the United States." Hazard's work was finally published in the early 1790s. By the mid-nineteenth century documentary publishing, with or without government support, was a major business. Other projects followed, such as Peter Force's American Archives, focused on the American Revolution and published in 1837-1853, and the American State Papers, covering the years of early nationhood, from 1789-1832, and appearing in 38 volumes between 1832 and 1861; hundreds of other volumes of documents poured from the presses. Advocates of historical editing can point to a long federal government involvement with the publication of historical records. Between 1817 and 1904, at least fifteen projects were funded or partially supported by the government to publish the records of American foreign relations, the Constitutional Convention, diplomatic correspondence of the American Revolution, early Congressional proceedings, and the papers of individual American leaders [10].

These nineteenth century documentary editions were part of a lengthy and intense movement that historians, such as David Van Tassel, have dubbed "documania."[11] Besides these documentary projects, Americans indulged in autograph collecting, read historical novels laced with descriptions of old records, and bought the works of the Romantic historians who told epic stories based on direct access to the eyewitness accounts. The proliferation of state and local historical societies over the first half of the nineteenth century contributed both to the collecting of important records and the publication of documentary editions.

Before the twentieth century, however, the methods of the documentary editors were less than systematic. It is well known that editors such as Jared Sparks modernized the documents and even changed the content in order to portray their heroes in the right light. The idea of these editions being monuments to the American democratic way was much stronger in the nineteenth century than today. These editors worked quickly, and the success of their ventures was completely dependent on getting their books into the market in order to recoup their investments. Many of these editions were by necessity incomplete, although this was more due to the fact that repositories like historical societies were only then being founded and these institutions were only in the earliest stages of their collecting. Still, Americans wanted to experience any old record, as providing a visible, tangible link to the past, and they were not always particular in matters such as historical accuracy or the veracity of the document.

It is generally the past half century that would be recognized as the height of documentary editing as a systematic, profesionalized, and effective pastime. Clearly, the late nineteenth century movement called scientific history, with its emphasis on the careful use of documentary sources akin to the running of experiments in scientific laboratories, had much to do with the development of more rigorous standards for documentary editing. Historian J. Franklin Jameson, the advocate of the development of systematic guides to archival records through his work at the Carnegie Institute in Washington, D. C., as well as the promoter for the formation of both the Commission and the National Archives, was a pivotal figure in the development of early modern twentieth century documentary editing; he was himself educated in the scientific approach to history taught by Herbert Baxter Adams at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Jameson, while serving a long stint as Editor of the American Historical Review, pioneered in the publication of large groups of documentary sources with careful annotation and stellar historical introductions. He was one of the designers of the Institute for Historical Research at the Carnegie Institution in Washington and served as the Institute's second director from late 1905 until 1928. From this vantage, Jameson oversaw the preparation of a number of important guides (twenty-two in all) to sources in Europe and other foreign nations concerning early American history and lobbied for the establishment of other institutions that could aid in preserving valuable historical records, including a commission on historical publications [12].

It was still left to the formation of the National Historical Publications Commission for a new era in documentary editing to emerge. There is little question that the NHPC and then the NHPRC has played an important role in the development of American documentary editing in the past forty years. The Commission has assisted in securing funding, supported the training of editors, nurtured the development of standards, assisted in the convening of conferences of editors, and encouraged the adoption of modern technology in the production of the documentary volumes. With calls for its creation coming as early as 1909, and after its initial dormancy from 1934 to the early 1950s, the NHPRC has emerged as the most visible player in the documentary editing business [13].

The rebirth of the Commission in the early 1950s is generally attributed to when Julian Boyd, in 1950, presented President Truman with the first volume of the Thomas Jefferson Papers. Truman responded by asking the Commission, which had continued to have no staff or grant funds, to plan for a national program for the publication of papers of other famous Americans. This led to the Commission's first staff and its first major report in 1954. The 1954 report, A National Program for the Publication of Historical Documents, is worth some reflection because it is directly relevant to the current debate. The report stressed that in a democratic society that "it is important that the people understand the history of their country and of its relation to the rest of the world." This sentiment was contrasted with an argument that our knowledge is "incomplete" because so "much of our past remains hidden from us" in inaccessible original sources. The Commission proposed, then, a systematic publication of the papers of many significant Americans (a list of 361 was appended to the report), cautioning readers of the report "that is not itself concerned directly with the study and writing of history"; its concern was for the highest editorial and scholarship standards.

Even with such recommendations, however, the Commission viewed itself involved in a "selective" publication of papers and records, with only a portion published in volumes and the remainder reproduced through microphotography and other related processes. The 1954 report only recommended comprehensive editions of the papers of five Americans - Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Quincy Adams (the Adams Family), James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton. The report also recommended a funding mixed of government and nongovernment sources, with itself leading in attracting such funding through its responsibility for overall planning of the documentary program. Still, it was not until 1964 that the Commission actually had money for grants, relying instead on its mandate to "promote" and to engender "cooperation."

The Commission generally has kept current with changing fashions of historical scholarship. After its 1954 report to the President, listing the important Americans whose papers were worthy of publication, the Commission has expanded this list. In the 1960s, it began supporting projects to publish the papers of important African-Americans. In the 1970s it focused on the papers of Native Americans and women, as well as the records of organizations related to these groups and their place in American history. The question has emerged, however, whether the letterpress editions are collections of source materials or historical scholarship in their own right, harking back to the refurbished Commission as described in the 1954 report (at the least, they are both and only time will indicate whether one is viewed as more significant than the other).

Out of the Commission's work has come a variety of important spinoffs supporting documentary editing. The start, in 1972, of the Institute for the Editing of Historical Documents has had a noticeable effect on the standards of editing. The 1978 formation of an Association for Documentary Editing was certainly the byproduct of a generation of Commission work in creating an identity for historical editors. And the Commission has continued to serve as a forum for the ideas and concerns of documentary editors, certainly explaining why the degree of reaction to the recent revised plan was greeted with so much suspicion and harshness. Its current legislative mandate (Public Law 100-365[44 USC 251] gives it the authority to "make plans, estimates, and recommendations," "cooperate with" other government and nongovernment agencies, and "recommend the expenditure of appropriated or donated funds" "in collecting and preserving and, when it considers it desirable, in editing and publishing papers of outstanding citizens of the United States and other documents as may be important for an understanding and appreciation of the history of the United States."

Somehow lost in the current debate have been earlier concerns expressed by the Commission about the state of documentary editing. In 1976, for example, the Commission issued statements of concern about the lack of selectivity used by many of the projects and the excessive annotation employed by some editors, over-describing even the most routine of documents. Such concerns were prompted by the immense length of time needed to produce particular volumes and the complete lack of reasonable completion dates for multi-volume projects. Calls for re-thinking and for using available technologies, such as microfilm then word processing, were sounded two decades ago and were alluded to in the 1954 report.

Also lost in the current debate have been the critical comments made by outsiders about historical editing. Notable among these has been the comments by G. Thomas Tanselle. Tanselle, in a contribution to the 1978 Studies in Bibliography heavily critiqued the modernization found in most NHPRC-supported editions and started by Julian Boyd in the Jefferson Papers project. Tanselle complained about the tendency to modernize the texts, the added problem of not recording the changes, and related issues by stressing that in "private documents, then, where errors and inconsistencies are an integral part of the text, the argument against modernization is doubly strong." Tanselle considered such changes as "indefensible" because they bring with them a loss in part of the "total body of evidence." "Most of the editions . . . are praiseworthy in many respects: most of them reflect through research and exemplary annotation. But their treatment of the actual texts is relatively casual and unsophisticated by comparison."[14] These issues do cause second thoughts about just what these editions represent; are they primary sources, ripe for the plucking by historical scholars, or elaborate interpretations of particular historical personages and eras? Given the claims of the defenders of these documentary editions in the current flap about the changes in the Commission's strategic plan, these are questions worth more deliberation.

To such complaints, there have been responses. Elizabeth Hamer Kegan, twenty years ago in her address as President of the Society of American Archivists, considered such laments. She noted that the length of time required to prepare such volumes was often due to the scattered nature of the records and argued, in any event, that "one of the chief values of a large documentary publication ... [is that] an entirely new resource for research is created." Concerning the expensive and time consuming aspect of the letterpress editions, and the prospects of resolving this by using microfilm, Kegan appealed to a sort of antiquarian fondness - "I have yet to hear of anyone who prefers a [microfilm] reel to a volume."[15] This, of course, posed the matter in the wrong fashion. If the question had been posed to a researcher of delivering all the known papers of an individual on microfilm in a few to a half dozen years or waiting fifty to a hundred years for a full edition to be published, any sort of reformatting such as microfilm would look much better. Constance Schulz's argument in 1988 that the millions of dollars spent on these projects is worth it because it moves the "province of writing history and reading [of] primary sources out of the exclusive precincts of the scholars who have had access to travel funds" is yet another remarkable stretch at justifying the benefits of the documentary editions [16]. Really, where is the evidence that these editions make it "possible for every man and woman to be his or her own historian"?

Through all of this we have been given an array of positive statements by which to assess the general value of documentary editing. In 1986, Mary Giunta, on the staff of the Commission, wrote in the American Archivist that "Publications continue to meet the needs of the interested scholar and the general reader, and the country's need to document its heritage." Where is the evidence for this? How is the "interested scholar" defined? And, are these editions really being read by the "general reader"? [17] A few years later another former editor, Charles T. Cullen, argued that one of the reasons why such editions are important is that "documentary editors sometimes make discoveries that are so unusual that one could argue the discovery would have been missed in any context other than the kind of labor editors put into their task." Cullen acknowledged that "most often, the discoveries are of relatively small importance," but this is counterbalanced, in his opinion, by his belief that documentary editing may be the "last bastion of traditional historical research, where the written record is paramount and the documents lead the scholar toward a thesis that unfolds in a well-written narrative." [18] Obviously, this takes us far afield from the argument of documentary editing as a means to preserve and make available our documentary heritage, and places it squarely back into historical scholarship.

The most remarkable, in light of this current debate, comes from another Commission-sponsored study. In 1992 the NHPRC commissioned a study to "learn more about the researchers who consult sources made available through projects it funds." Completed by documentary editor Ann Gordon, Using the Nation's Documentary Heritage was really more about the supposed value of the documentary editing projects with little understanding of the basic work of archivists but with remarkable candor about how documentary editors feel about the continued stress by the Commission on archival and historical records projects [19].

Gordon, like some of the advocates for editing cited in the beginning of this essay, holds documentary editing in a grand light: "With the start of a new era of documentary editing in the 1950s came the grand promise that any household could have Jefferson and Franklin on its shelves. Inflated as the image may have been, the editions do bring documents of national importance within reach." This statement's meaning of "within reach" is unclear. Within reach by whom? Who are using these editions? What difference have they made in historical research or on larger public understanding of the past? Since there has been virtually no evaluation of the impact or importance of documentary editions (reviews of such volumes do not usually consider the larger issues, but most often treat the publications as the products of scholarly historians), these questions are even more crucial to an evaluation of the use of archival records and historical manuscripts.

In the Gordon Report there is a decided prejudice evident in favor of documentary editions. This first appears in Gordon's chapter on microfilmed records, when she writes that "documentary editing superseded archival practice as the foundation for microfilmed projects. In the book editions sponsored by the agency, historians compiled sources by searching in many repositories and arranged them as the editor determined they would be most useful. As the costs of publishing large editions mounted, microform took on a new role as substitute medium for publication of editions modeled on the books. The microform editions are a compromise; they rarely incorporate the annotation expected in book editions, and though their guides exceed the archival finding aid, they rarely achieve the standard of a book." The statement seems to be carefully worded to suggest that documentary editions are somehow the highest level of device for bringing documentary records to researchers.

Gordon's full chapter on documentary editions is even more revealing. While it is suggested that the marketing of these editions has not been as successful as hoped for and there are references to the fact that they have been criticized as not the ideal means by which to present historical records for their use, there is really little analysis of their use or merit of continuance. Gordon does suggest that sales figures are not a reliable mechanism by which to evaluate the documentary editions, but, then, what is? Furthermore, there is really little discussion about what the documentary editions actually represent. At one point Gordon notes that "people who use documentary editions rely on the scholarship of the editors to augment their own work." This actually raises the question whether these works are more documentary sources than they are scholarly works, and this is an important distinction. Should we really fool ourselves into thinking that the large dollars invested in these editions are preserving documentary sources? If they are, it is an infinitesimal portion of the documentary heritage.

Here it is worth an aside to consider an additional summary of this study by Gordon in the Association for Documentary Editing's own journal, Documentary Editing, entitled "A Future for Documentary Editions: The Historical Documents Study" and published in the March 1992 issue. In this essay Gordon focuses on her perception of documentary editions and their value, and, more importantly, her version of the debate between archivists and documentary editors. She states in this revealing essay that "within and around the Commission an argument about the relative merits of granting funds to archivists or editors simmered and occasionally boiled over." Then she suggests that such things as the inability of researchers to get to the archival and historical manuscripts repositories "suggests new perspectives on a host of issues, including the importance of microfilm and of published documents which the researcher can bring close to home." This leads to her re-statement of the larger study's finding that the National Historical Publications and Records Commission should "regain its position of leadership in the field of documentary editing." At this point it should be obvious to all that Ann Gordon writes from the vantage of a documentary editor. Gordon laments the arguing between archivists and documentary editors over a "single, slim pot of federal money" and lambastes "critics within the Commission and their allies outside [who] have tried to redefine editing as an extension of archival management and practice." Gordon then, in this brief essay, tries to show that editing is a superior manner in which to make primary source materials available to the researcher; for example, "scholars cannot match editors in their ability to travel in pursuit of sources on a topic." Although she does suggest some serious questions that must be answered about documentary editions, it is also clear that the main purpose of the Historical Documents Study was to carve out a role and funding for documentary editing and not to evaluate objectively how researchers use historical records.

This perspective is misapplied when Gordon makes final recommendations to the Commission in the fuller study. She candidly suggests the Commission has been too wedded to the archival profession: "Because the records program evolved as a partner in extending the professional development of archivists, many of its grants have a remote relationship with researchers and the public at large. They improve skills, support long-range planning, and address technical problems of preservation. When such projects publish results, the works are written for other archivists, not for users of the historical record or the public." So, we might ask, what should the Commission really do? Gordon suggests, as she did in the ADE journal, that the "Historical Documents Study urges the Commission to reassert leadership not only through support for specific editions but also through national programs." The current debate can only make one hopeful that the Commission has finally come to its senses about just what these documentary editions represent, although the compromise solution suggests that the political, romantic, and emotional aspects represented by the Founding Era documentary editions are still blinding many to the larger and more critical needs represented by late twentieth century records.

Such values have long been expressed along with the more romantic notions that the editor holds to his or her own work. Paul Bergeron, in the 1971 American Archivist, wrote that "After the industrious editor has been immersed in his work for many months, the letters and documents begin to speak to him. The voices of the great and the near great, as well as the obscure, are heard; these persons seem alive again. While reading their comments and observations about business, politics, religion, family, marriage, death, and even the weather, the sensitive editor becomes aware of historical figures as humans." [20] This sounds suspiciously like historical research. The question here should be whether the users of these editions can have the same experience as the editor, as described by Bergeron? Or, are these documentary editions really subsidized federal historical projects, and the source of the debate really the fear that the livelihood of the editorial staffs, now numbering in the hundreds, will be threatened by a simple change of priorities by the Commission? Even though the Commission is not arguing for the curtailment or abandonment of these projects (they could find financial resources elsewhere, afterall), what must appear to be positions with nearly life-long security (given the decades of work remaining for many of the larger projects) are challenged by the Commission's new plan.

The most insightful glimpse into the inner workings of these editorial projects came in a recent essay by Jack Hitt in the February 1997 issue of Lingua Franca. In a sense the title of the essay says it all - "In the Franklin Factory: Slow-Motion Scholarship in an Age of Academic Obsolescence." Hitt's article lovingly describes the forty year old Franklin Papers project at Yale University, focusing on the people editing the volumes and their own self-images as historical editors. Hitt obviously believes that the decades old work of these projects and the decades ahead is romantic, noting that "those who sign on no longer view the volumes that slowly emerge as mere books, but rather see in them the kind of enduring work that Aquinas imagined for Summa theologiae or Ptolemy for his Almagest." The ludicrous notion that these editions will somehow last forever is, thus, once again stressed. More importantly, what emerges from Hitt's essay is the gnawing concern about the status of these editors and the fact that their work is really more like a biographical project. Hitt notes that "since many if not most of these editors lack doctorates, ... the culture of achievement is not measured by the usual perks of tenure or the prestige of an endowed chair but rather by an Old World-style guild system of long, hard work." Coupled with his observation that "what is also revealed by spending time with [the editors of the Franklin Papers] is just how differently they think of Franklin than the rest of us ... the editors I interviewed talked about Franklin in the way one might gossip about somebody alive and nearby." This type of assessment ought to make us wonder about the nature of these works, especially in the lofty terms by which they are described. These observations suggest a kind of tenure and, as well, more of the way biographers wind up getting closer to their subjects. Neither are serious problems, except in how they relate to the grandiose importance attached to these projects in a democratic society's understanding of its own past.

Hitt also published a brief column in late January in the New York Times, entitled "Devolving History," criticizing the Commission's revised plan and entering more directly into the current crisis. Hitt described the documentary editing projects as "some of the smallest and most efficient expenditures of taxpayer dollars," although one could ask smaller and more efficient than what? Hitt cried that the documentary projects have been placed behind the "vaguest state programs" such as "regrants" for professional education and planning. He adds that "local archivists" are now getting ready for the "easy money" and the papers of the Washingtons and Jeffersons will be less important than the "memos of ex-governors and the collected receipts of beloved town clerks." What vague programs? Educating individuals to work as professional archivists and manuscripts curators is clearly an essential activity. And why is it that Hitt believes that money is being diverted to support the preservation of unimportant records? Much of these funds will be used to preserve records crucial to understanding the twentieth century, something neither Jefferson or Washington can help us do. This brings us to what "national significance" means, and whether only the documentary projects support this (and, of course, the state regrant projects, research on electronic records management, and the continuing support of important archival holdings at local repositories all can relate to national significance).

Historical Context 2: Archivists and Historians

It is important to understand another dimension of the debate about documentary editing, and that is how it relates to the broader professional relationships between historians and archivists. This is another way of examining the business of how editors identify themselves. While some editors certainly see themselves as representing a distinct profession, more want to be accepted as part of the historical academy when, in fact, they really should be more closely allied with the archivists.

The historical profession emerged in the late nineteenth century, marked by the growing number of appointments of historians to teach in the university and the formation of the American Historical Association (AHA) in 1883. While the AHA, in its early days, included with little distinction both professionals (academics) and amateurs (writers and others), by the beginning of the twentieth century the Association was clearly a professional organization. Despite this, the Association served as an umbrella for historical affiliates. When there began the movement in establishing state government archives in 1901, with the founding of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, culminating with the establishment of the National Archives in 1934, the growing number of archivists began to attend meetings of the AHA. Most of the archivists were history-educated, and they gained enough in numbers that in 1909 they formed the Conference of Archivists, continuing to meet as part of the AHA for another quarter of a century [21].

In a very natural fashion, the archivists began to see the need for a separate professional association, an objective reached in 1936 with the founding of the Society of American Archivists. The relationship between archivists and records managers is a long and complicated one, and even now many archivists think of themselves as either historians or as carrying out their responsibilities for the primary purpose of historians using the records they manage. Over the past twenty years, however, there has been a widening gulf between archivists and other records professionals and historians [22]. For one, archivists have moved to establish graduate education guidelines that stress an independent core body of knowledge even if they recognize that this knowledge is fundamentally interdisciplinary. For some historians, clinging to the notion that all that is needed for someone to be an archivist is to be trained as a historian or that the penultimate role of an archivist is to provide records for historical researchers, this shift in education has been troubling. More problematic, however, has been that the majority of the major archival education programs have become established in schools of information science, suggesting that archivy is more an information discipline than belonging to the humanities. Given that the majority of those teaching in these schools possess history degrees, it is hardly as serious a concern as some have made it out to be. Yet, the historical profession has watched this trend with suspicion. It is quite probable that the NHPRC's revised plan, with its stated new priorities to deal with issues like electronic records rather than the traditional documentary editions, is viewed by many historians as part of what they believe to be the influence of archivists who view themselves as technocrats rather than humanists, or certainly historians.

Some of the problems of the relationship between historians and archivists also certainly stem from the changing ideas of historical truth in the postmodernist sense of the word and the impact of this on the value of archival records. While more reasonable approaches have emerged, such as in Alan Spitzer's Historical Truth and Lies About the Past, a series of four case studies demonstrating that there is a common ground of "criteria of veracity and validity" between positivists and post-modernists (usually best seen in debate in the public arena) [23], there is little doubt that the often acrimonious debates of the past two decades or more about the nature of historical evidence has loosened the academy's interest in archival sources. The fact that scholarly historians represent a meager portion of the researchers visiting archives may be a manifestation of changing historiographical fancies (although there are certainly many historians who shun the latest historiographical fads in favor of reliance on the evidence of archives), but it certainly has had a fundamental influence on the thinking of archivists about their mission and the potential uses of their records [24].

Archivists can take heart about the centrality of their work in the late twentieth century. Whether it stems from some of the debate about the veracity of historical evidence in the hyped-up self-proclaimed information age or whether it emanates from the declining eyewitness survivors of one of the most horrific events in human history, the Holocaust, an industry of research and writing has emerged stressing the concept of public memory [25]. It appears that the Information Age may leave a legacy of being the era when humanity seemed to create systems that overwhelmed themselves with far too much information to control. While the dazzling devices and the industry advertisements promise instant success or gratification, we seem awash daily in millions of words of new or newly rehashed information. The philosopher Michael Heim in his Virtual Reality captured the problem when he wrote that "Infomania erodes our capacity for significance. With a mind-set fixed on information, our attention span shortens. We collect fragments. We become mentally poorer in overall meaning. We get into the habit of clinging to knowledge bits and lose our feel for the wisdom behind knowledge. In the information age, some people even believe that literacy or culture is a matter of having the right facts at our fingertips." [26]

Archivists, and documentary editors for that matter, need to determine how to harness the power of computers in order to make people aware of and to point effectively these people to the important information found in their records. Part of the frustration that many archivists may feel toward the traditional letterpress documentary editions is their stress on a printing and access technology less suited for the changing information access patterns and desires of the modern day. If today a CD-ROM can hold the equivalent of 500,000 pages of text and can be reproduced for about a dollar, it stands to reason that approaches of reproducing the papers of these significant historical figures and the records of organizations need to be re-evaluated (especially if the goal is to make these records more widely available to the general public). A March 1992 letter by Ralph Orth to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education about the Mark Twain documentary edition describes the problem with the way such projects have been managed. The commentator notes that an eleven word telegram receives a 27-line explanation, causing the letter writer to suggest that at the rate that the project is proceeding it will "take 100 years to publish the full 60 volumes required to print them all" and about $32 million in federal funding.The Founding-Era documentary editions (the Adams Papers, First Federal Congress, Franklin Papers, Jefferson Papers, Madison Papers, Constitution Ratification, First Supreme Court, and the Washington Papers) will continue to the year 2060; the Jefferson Papers project, the documentary edition heralded for its scholarship, will have taken 116 years to complete at the present rate [27]. The average NHPRC support per volume of these editions has been to date over $86,000. While electronic library catalogs may provide better linkages to these volumes, it seems that the evolving ways that people access information may leave the fuller or potential use of these volumes behind if they are not provided in full text digital form at considerably less expense; in this realm, both archivists and documentary editors share a common concern. The fact that all but one of the Founding-Era projects is working on or planning for some sort of full electronic access is commendable, but this fact should seem to make the editors, archivists, historians, and public question whether we need to extend the letterpress editions into the middle of the next century.

Similar anxieties can be stated about the new interest in public memory. Historians and members of other disciplines are producing a wide-ranging set of studies on how a people perceives its past. From writers like Ian Buruma, who provides startling testimony about how both the Germans and Japanese have sought to distort and destroy evidence about their activities in the Second World War, to scholars like Mike Wallace, who documents the Disneyification of the past into a sort of pablum for the mind, we have hundreds of volumes in the last decade that provide insights into how a community or a nation reinvents its own past for its use and convenience [28]. We can add to these studies the debates about multiculturalism and political correctness that while on the one hand seem to be local disputes in the academy on the other they have played out in the public arena with discussions about such matters as national history standards, textbook writing, museum displays, and even festivals and pageants (as the debate about the Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian reflected). Central to these debates is the idea of evidence and the value of archival or primary sources, yet in these debates we often see little reference to archives and even less to published documentary sources. While archivists have been struggling to develop the means to use the Internet and the World Wide Web to heighten awareness of their sources, they can be easily frustrated by the documentary editors who seem prone to cling to slowly producing volumes that are printed in limited runs and that are mostly purchased by university libraries [29].

The arguments about the centrality of documentary editing to the American public's appreciation of its heritage seems almost silly in the context of current society and its ongoing debates about its identity. The March 3rd "Editorial Notebook" of the New York Times, looking back over the recent revelations of how the Nazis stockpiled looted gold from European Jews through Swiss bank accounts and how long it took for the facts of such activities to come to light, stated that "few countries deal honestly with their past." What archivists and historians can be cheered about, is that these revelations were possible through the use of often routine appearing bank accounts and related records. As an article in a news magazine stated, "As with most reconsiderations of history, there is no single reason behind the new urge for total recall. The enormity of the Nazis' crimes makes it impossible ever to truly close this chapter of history. And the passage of time, rather than permitting memories to fade, has opened troves of long hidden or long ignored documents both in America and in Europe." [30] The disparaged "other" priorities of the Commission may be far more relevant to the present than most of the ongoing documentary editing projects.

One would think that documentary editors could take heart as well with the renewed stress on public memory as so many take the view that their works are monuments. But this concern or opportunity may be lost in the issue of the status of the editors and with how documentary editors see themselves. Much of the discussion about the nature of these projects has focused more on the apparent lack of status or recognition accorded by the historical profession for their editors or, as the current debate suggests, with how the editors relate to archivists, reminiscent of the views in the 1992 Gordon report. Fredrika Teute's analysis of the reviews of these works in historical journals, published in the 1980 American Archivist, reflect concerns about the editors' status, scholarship, biases, subsequent use by other historians, and over-annotation, while acknowledging that many of these concerns had declined by the mid-1970s, perhaps because of the advent of the Bicentnennial of the American Revolution. Yet, as Teute points out, these problems had not been resolved by 1980 (or by now). She argued that "In the process of doing justice to our documentary inheritance, ever more money, more time, and more detailed historical exegesis of the texts has been nationalized. It is time to stop . . . and, further, to recognize that these projects are not like the great cathedrals. Not only should they not take centuries to be completed, but also they may not and perhaps should not endure that long." Instead of doting on some great benefit of public democracy of these projects, Teute rightly argued that these works need to be considered "to be like any other work of history, as a project of a particular generation out of whose values they evolved." [31] Robert McCown, summarizing the proceedings of a 1975 conference on documentary editing, captured this kind of attitude perfectly when he wrote that "Editorial projects do take a great deal of time and money. Some would object to the great amount of money spent on the preparation of one volume. Yet society spends a great deal of money for things much less permanent than a standard edition. A good editorial project is worthwhile because such a project will really be permanent. This permanence gives the editor his status." [32] But this sort of sentiment has to be juxtaposed against other worries, such as those of Richard Kohn and George Curtis, who wondered twenty years ago that the NHPRC "perhaps unwittingly has fostered editing as a separate enterprise and editors as a separate and distinct group within the historical profession." [33] So much of the worrying about the documentary editions has resulted from such status concerns, rather than the matching of mission to success. The fact that historians like Kohn and Curtis might lose sleep over archivists for much the same reason is not the point since it has become very clear that editing and archiving are two very distinct pursuits and that the multi-faceted values of records makes archivists truly distinct from historians.

What such views may reflect is a group, the editors, caught between two diverging disciplines, historians and archivists. The work of providing these editions seems similar to the historical interpretations done by historical scholars and the appraisal, cataloguing, and preservation carried out by archivists.

This no-man's land of documentary editing seems to lead to arguments that are difficult to defend. In 1989, one former editor, Brooks D. Simpson, published a brief article in the Organization of American Historians (OAH) Newsletter suggesting that the immense angst felt by documentary editors "contributed to the balanization of the historical profession through launching retaliatory strikes and engaging in self-celebration, congratulation and commiseration rather than demonstrating how the skills and products of documentary editing contributes to ongoing historical research and teaching." [34] This sense of the permanence of the documentary editions, for example, seems illogical to the extreme. Given the vagaries of historical scholarship, its changing interpretations and its constant search for new and improved methodologies, it is difficult to believe that historically trained editors would believe that their editions will remain permanent as elements of scholarship. The long annotations, historical introductions, and other supplementary devices must, by necessity, reflect both the currency of scholarship (the time they were written) as well as the in-depth analysis of the historical papers being collected and edited. Projects now approaching the half-century mark must reflect the changing scholarly times, making them historical artifacts just as were the pioneering editorial projects of Hazard, Sparks, Force, and Ford. Future users of the volumes will probably spend as much time struggling to interpret the scholarly apparatus of these editions, as using the source materials the projects published.

Historical Context 3: Changing Recordkeeping Systems and Access

In the current debate, some advocates for documentary editing have been aghast that the Commission would subjugate their "monumental" tasks and responsibilities to the current struggles with electronic records. This attitude misses two fundamental points, and these may be at the crux of why the current debate ultimately needs to be resolved as the Commission originally proposed in late 1996. First, the role of the archivist is to understand recordkeeping systems and, as a result, putting resources into working with these new, emerging systems is a little more than logical. Second, the current nature of recordkeeping systems threatens, perhaps in an unprecedented fashion, society with the loss of the majority of this era's documents.

While the concept of the record (the evidence of a transaction) has remained fundamentally unchanged in many centuries, the manner in which records are created and captured has been transformed many times over [35]. The origins of writing have been tied to the need to create a remembrance of a transaction. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, in her 1991 summary essay "The Earliest Precursor of Writing," has argued that "with the rise of cities [in the ancient world] and the development of large-scale trade the system [of token use] was pushed onto a new track. Images of the tokens soon supplanted the tokens themselves, and the evolution of symbolic objects into ideographs led to the rapid adoption of writing all across western Asia." [36] The development of the clay tablet societies, using moist clay marked with a wedge-shaped stylus and establishing elaborate classification and storage systems led to the first real recognizable archives and libraries. The establishment and rapid use of alphabetic writing in ancient Greece, starting about the eight century BCE, led to the uses of writing for marking possessions, memorial inscriptions, making lists of officials and codification of laws, and the preparation of rules and procedures. While the use of writing for recordkeeping was less systematic, formalized, and legalistic than its more modern counterparts, we still see the importance of records, characterized by Rosalind Thomas in her Orality and Literacy for Ancient Greece as reflecting "an enthusiasm for writing as a means of memorial, preservation or self-advertisement - enabling memory of the individual self to be perpetuated somewhat more easily." [37] Her argument that the ancient Greeks used memorial inscriptions, carved in stone, to capture the more important records is reminiscent of the argument by the documentary editors that their works are monuments, with one exception - new and improved technologies enabled this practice to be abandoned.

Within a half a millennium, other recording technologies had developed to enable more elaborate recordkeeping systems. The use of papyrus, then wood bound into a codex (a book form), and then parchment all allowed for more complex organizations of records. By the late medieval period in Europe, there was a regular record culture at work. The growth of government, trade, and communications. with a concomitant growth in literacy, led to a desire for records of every transaction to be captured and kept for later use in an organized state. During this period we see, then, the shift in the meaning of a "record" from that of bearing witness to an activity to the literal written document. As medievalist M. T. Clancy reminded us, "Documents did not immediately inspire trust ... A modern literate tends to assume that statements in writing, especially if they are in print, are more reliable than spoken words. This assumption is the result of schooling in reading and writing from an early age and the constant use of documents, such as bills, for even the smallest transactions." [38]

By the time of American colonialization, records were an indelible aspect of civilization. The private libraries of the colonists included ample numbers of legal manuals with guidelines for preparing both personal and business records, and the county courthouses involved into recordkeeping as well as social centers. Until well into the nineteenth century, in fact, the technologies of recordkeeping did not dramatically change, allowing for fairly informal means of control of businesses and households. The advent of the telegraph, typewriter, and telephone changed all this in a dramatic fashion. The following first half of the twentieth century with improvements in the typewriter, accompanied by tabulating machines, sorters, copiers, and, finally, the start of the use of computers changed all this even more. Records proliferated and grew more complex in nature. The old uses of technology to create paper records that could be filed in traditional fashion gave way to newer systems that could only be used in a machine-readable format. We were by then waist-deep in the reality and hype of the Information Age.

The late twentieth century, in terms of electronic information systems (including those maintaining records), has been the most remarkable period in history of the development of new ways of creating and handling both information and records. John Green, in his popular new book on communications, describes the immense technological changes wrought by the computer. He reviews Moore's law, predicting that the "power, speed, and capacity of microprocessors ... would double every 18 months and the cost would be halved in the same period." Green reflects on the immense software improvements, the ability now "to digitize all forms of information and media" for speedy transmission, the construction of the "information superhighway" with fiber optic cable and the use of wireless technologies, and the unparalleled impact of the Internet and the World Wide Web [39]. All of these have been and are being used for recordkeeping.

What this remarkably terse summary of recordkeeping technologies suggests is that the archivist must be an expert on the history, purposes, and technology of records systems. It is the only means by which the archivist can carry through with his or her primary functions of evaluating, cataloguing, preserving, and making available for use the records of continuing value to society. This should not be that contrary to the role of the documentary editor, since the editor should become an expert as well about the recordkeeping technologies and methods used by the creator responsible for the records being edited. However, it is clear that here we also have the source of one of the reasons why archivists and documentary editors do have distinct differences, and why the pleas for these professionals to work together - while seeming to take the moral high ground in this debate - is really quite meaningless.

The real reason why electronic records must be a priority over the documentary editions is simple. Most of the records represented by the documentary editions are not immediately threatened. Left alone and provided moderate storage the papers of the Jeffersons and Washingtons will be here next year, the next decade, and most likely the next century. This is not the case with the records produced in the modern electronic systems. Electronic information technology has been hailed as the solution of all of our modern problems, and, as a result, the computer has become the core of modern living. As Nicholas Negroponte argues in his Being Digital "Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living. ... Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped. It has four very powerful qualities that will result in its ultimate triumph: decentralizing, globalizing, harmonizing, and empowering." [40] None of these characteristics of the computer and its use provides, however, the solution to modern recordkeeping. Yet, electronic recordkeeping has taken hold because of what computer technology enables the modern organization to accomplish. James Beniger suggested that "what made the Control Revolution in fact revolutionary was the development of technologies far beyond the capacity of any individual, whether in the form of the massive bureaucracies of the late nineteenth century or of the microprocessors of the late twentieth century. In all cases it was not the novelty of the commodities processed ... that proved decisive, ... but rather the transcendence of the information-processing capabilities of the individual organism by a much greater technological system." [41] Like it or not, then, we know that organizations will continue to use electronic recordkeeping technologies and that traditional recordkeeping systems will diminish in use and importance.

So, what does any of this have to do with the argument about the publication of documentary editions? The problem is that until now the designers of these new recordkeeping systems have been computer specialists and not the experts in records and archives. These systems have been designed without a worry about long-term maintenance issues and with an eye on documents that can be manipulated and changed at will, both characteristics threatening the records of any modern day politician, civic leader, businessperson, military officer, or leader who may be declared a century or less from now as being his or her generation's Jefferson or Washington. These systems, when they are designed, do not take into account the need to maintain records for more than a brief period of time. As Stuart Brand in his 1987 Media Lab stated, "It used to be that new media supplemented old media; now they destroy them." [42] Will we lose the papers of today's Jefferson as a result?

The Internet really brings forth these issues, because it is through such networks as this that an increasing quantity of modern records are being created and transmitted, yet it, and the World Wide Web, may be the most volatile of all information devices. The March 1997 issue of the Scientific American, with a special report on "The Internet: Bringing Order from Chaos," is full of assessments about this challenge. In this issue Clifford Lynch writes that the "Internet - and particularly its collection of multimedia resources known as the World Wide Web - was not designed to support the organized publication and retrieval of information, as libraries [and we could add archives] are." [43] Yet, we could also expect that with incessant letter writers like Thomas Jefferson or John Adams that both could be expected to have used the electronic mail technology, the best known feature of the Internet, to correspond with friends and colleagues around the world.

The greatest irony of all this may concern the fact that the protesting American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians are both co-litigants in the ongoing court case known as the PROFS case. When the Iran-Contra scandal moved to the front page in late 1986, principals in this affair began to purge electronic mail messages related to it. The Tower Commission report in 1987 included many of these messages, saved by other public officials. When the Reagan Administration was working on its transition out of office in 1989, it was learned that the National Archives was prepared to allow thousands of electronic mail messages to be dumped because they did not constitute "records." The National Security Archive, a public citizen action group using Freedom of Information Act requests to gain access to classified federal records, began to lead an effort to stop this, thus beginning a long, still ongoing court case about the preservation of these records. Another irony about this case may be the role of the National Archives. Tom Blanton, Executive Director of the National Security Archive, wrote in his 1995 White House E-Mail, that none of the litigation would have been necessary "if the National Archives & Records Administration had simply done its job under the law, holding even the White House accountable. Perhaps that the final lesson of the White House e-mail case: We need a reinvented National Archives, a vigorous information watchdog. Otherwise, NARA will be relegated to the role of the nation's attic; and there, among the cobwebs, will roam the ghost of government accountability." [44] It may be that the National Archives, with Carlin's and George's leadership at the helm of the Commission in moving electronic records up to the top of its priority items, is becoming more vigorous. Now it is time for the documentary editors, and their historical association allies, to understand the bigger picture.

The Real Debate and Issue: The Importance of Records

What this debate lacks is recognition of the range of values of records. This is, in fact, the needed bigger picture. The debate suggests that records become valuable when they become archival, that is, they are determined to have value for documenting or understanding the past. The implication is that archivists work to prepare the fodder for scholarly historians and others needing to do some sort of historical research. But records are far more important than this, and an understanding of this will put to rest the central core of this current tempest in a records box.

Records are maintained for purposes of evidence, accountability, and memory. The evidential value of records is found in their documenting of events, activities, and trends. All records, created whenever a transaction in a business process occurs (sending a directive, endorsing a contract, closing a purchase), provide evidence of the activities of individuals, organizations, and government. Not all evidence is created equal, of course, because the nature of activities it relates to runs from the routine (answering a memo in order to accept a lunch invitation) to the immensely important (signing an international peace treaty). What makes all this a bit more difficult is the fact that routine activities can become important in their connection to important events (agreeing to go to lunch in which it is later determined that those who attended this particular lunch were involved in planning a political coup). Adding to this difficulty is the idea of discovery used by lawyers to sweep up all records and even miscellaneous information found in non-records (scribbles on a telephone message pad or notes found in a desk drawer).

Accountability is the value of records for ensuring that public officials or the managers of a company or those responsible for any private or civic organization are held responsible for their actions, especially those that have an impact on individual rights or the welfare of society. Kevin Kearns has defined accountability as involving "answering to a higher authority in the bureaucratic or interorganizational chain of command." [45] In a democratic society, we can also view the government process being held to the scrutiny of that government's citizens. Accountability is best seen through examples. In November 1996 three New York municipal government officials were accused of taking bribes to falsify computerized property records to eradicate due tax payments totalling over $13 million. A month later the Prudential Insurance Company was charged with deliberately destroying ten thousand customer files to impede an investigation into sales fraud; the company was ultimately fined $1 million for revealing a "consistent pattern of failing to prevent unauthorized document destruction." The Clinton-Gore administration has given us countless examples. The ongoing problems of alleged illegal campaign contributions, always followed by high-sounding denials, have always produced within a remarkably short time documents demonstrating the exact opposite of the denials. Shortly after Vice President Gore stated ignorance that a visit to a luncheon at a Buddhist temple was to raise money, a memorandum from the Democratic National Committee was made public; this document was dated just three days before the luncheon and addressed to Gore's office indicated that Gore was expected to "extend appreciation for participant support and inspire political and fund-raising efforts." And, of course, the afore-mentioned e-mail related to the Iran-Contra affair. All of these demonstrate the value of records for holding every person or organization with a public trust responsible to that public as the higher authority.

Corporate memory is a topic that has moved to become a research cottage industry, partly because the Information Age has become as much characterized by the drowning of organizations and individuals in information as by the growing availability of greater quantities of information on any conceivable topic. Studies of corporate or organizational memory have identified every conceivable source for such memory, ranging from the literal memories of people to institutional symbols to warehouses of information including the information found in records. The notion of corporate memory is probably the closest to what those engaged in this debate about the publication of documentary sources hold sacred regarding the value of records, although those who are concerned with corporate memory perceive it as a far broader idea of everything that is of potential use to the current functioning of the organization.

The value of records for memory purposes has become more evident in the last decade, as the Cold War has ebbed and records related to it and most of the major events in the twentieth century have come under closer scrutiny because of the millions of previously unavailable records becoming available. Early in 1997, for example, a 1946 American intelligence memorandum and the transcript of a 1945 military interrogation of the Nazi official responsible for Germany's gold department during the Second World War became available by their declassification by the National Archives. The documents revealed the degree in which the Swiss had been involved in helping Nazi leaders hide gold in Spain and Portugal, gold that most assume were the result of seizures of fortunes of European Jewish families and companies. The subsequent announcement that a guard at one of the Swiss banks had stopped the destruction of records, supposedly a mistake, related to the transfer of this Nazi gold only made the importance of these and other records seem that more significant. Examples such as these appear in the newspaper and through news services every day, each confirming the importance of records to our continued understanding of ourselves and our present society.

In none of this discussion of the values of records did the concept of historical value appear at the top of the list, although clearly those records with such research value can fit into any of the broader categories of evidence, accountability, and memory. It is in this kind of perspective that the current crisis over the Commission funding and prioritization of documentary editing has to be viewed. For one, it makes little difference what the Commission's original mandate required since the mandate was formed long before the transformation of recordkeeping technologies, and the changes in the technology do require the Commission's priorities to be altered if it intends to be able to assist in the maintenance of our post-World War II documentary heritage. On another point, the arguments about the value of the documentary editions for the American public's recognition of its past as a nation sound compelling, but clearly regulating the rise of electronic recordkeeping systems has a much greater stake in this. As to the exclusion of constituent groups in the shifting of the Commission strategic plan, it can be clearly seen that all constituencies have been long represented and the issue has more to do with the differences between the historical scholarship of the documentary editors and the mission of preserving the documentary heritage held to by archivists and manuscripts curators. Dismissing the potential impact of a small amount of Commission funding on the management of electronic records is really besides the point, since a number of relatively modest investments in this realm by the Commission have provided significant positive strides; the work of my own project at the University of Pittsburgh has been utilized by archivists and records managers around the world. [46] And, finally, the pleas for not having constituencies fight among themselves over a small pool of funds sounds logical, except that we must ask whether these are really constituencies at all in the larger battle for our documentary heritage.

In an oft-quoted letter from Thomas Jefferson in 1791 to pioneer editor Ebenezer Hazard, Jefferson mused on the lost of the records of the American Revolution and argued: "The lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains: not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use, in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident." Yet, it is difficult to imagine that if Jefferson were alive today that he would not be concerned with harnessing the Internet or the World Wide Web to provide this multiplication of copies. It was Jefferson, after all, who worked trying to perfect a portable version of the "polygraph" in the early nineteenth century to make his correspondence more productive. I can see him now learning to use an electronic mail system, while worrying about whether his papers would be preserved for posterity. I can see him wanting to talk with Bill Gates about this. But, would we be able to help him? [47] End of article

The Author

Richard J. Cox is an Associate Professor in Library and Information Science at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Information Sciences where he is responsible for the archives concentration in the MLIS degree. He has a Ph. D. in Library Science and a M. A. in History. As an educator of future archivists and records managers, Dr. Cox has worked to integrate electronic records management into all of the courses in the archives specialization and he has revamped the focus of the program to stress expertise on records and recordkeeping systems. Prior to his current position he worked at the New York State Archives and Records Administration, Alabama Department of Archives and History, the City of Baltimore, and the Maryland Historical Society. He chaired the Society of American Archivists (SAA) committee that drafted new graduate archival education guidelines adopted by its Council in 1988, served for four years as a member of that association's Committee on Education and Professional Development, and was a member of the Society's governing Council from 1986 through 1989. Dr. Cox served as Editor of the American Archivist from 1991 through 1995.

He has written extensively on archival and records management professional issues, publishing articles in such journals as the American Archivist, Provenance, Midwestern Archivist (now Archival Issues), Archivaria, Journal of Library History, Cultures and Libraries, Journal of Library Administration, Public Historian, Library and Archival Security, RQ, Records Management Journal, Records Management Quarterly, and the ASIS Proceedings. He was also principal author of a major evaluation of Alabama's historical records, Assessing Alabama's Archives (1985), and a self-study guide for New York's historical records programs, Strengthening New York's Historical Records Programs (1988), winner of the Arline Custer Memorial Award given by the Mid-Atlantic Region Archives Conference for publishing excellence in the field of archival administration. Dr. Cox also won the Custer Award in 1979. He has published four books on archival topics: American Archival Analysis: The Recent Development of the Archival Profession in the United States (1990) - winner of the Waldo Gifford Leland Award given by the Society of American Archivists; Managing Institutional Archives: Foundational Principles and Practices (1992); The First Generation of Electronic Records Archivists in the United States: A Study in Professionalization (1994); and Documenting Localities (1996).

Most of his recent writing has emanated from his work as Co-Principal Investigator of the University of Pittsburgh Recordkeeping Functional Requirements project from 1993-1996 and his new role as Co-Director of the Center for Electronic Recordkeeping and Archival Research (CERAR). For additional information about Dr. Cox, please consult his home page on the World Wide Web at

Electronic mail:


1. Additional information about the Commission and its strategic plan can be found at

2. This statement is available at

3. Her statement was posted to the Archives and Archivists LISTSERV on February 26, 1997.

4. Smock was a leading figure in the 1980s arguing that a number of professional associations should band together to create a coalition for raising funds from the private sector and public agencies to create a trust fund for supporting a variety of projects, from documentary editions to archival processing work to educational ventures and professional publications. I was on the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Council when this idea was suggested. The SAA seriously discussed it, but the idea never got off the ground, primarily because it emerged too late in the Bicentennial of the Constitution for the effort to get organized as well as was necessary. There were also too many different agendas present in the proposal, failing to take into account the differences between archival work, the research interests of historians, and the numerous other reasons archival records need to be preserved and managed.

5. His statement, "News from the Archivist of the United States: NHPRC Revises Its Plan," is available at

6. See "NHPRC: NHPRC Plan Revisions February 1997 Action" at

7. Products related to my early work on NHPRC-funded projects include A Guide to the microfilm edition of the Calvert Papers (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1973); "A History of the Calvert Papers, MS. 174," Maryland Historical Magazine, Volume 68 (Fall 1973): pp. 309-22; "The Need for Comprehensive Records Programs in Local Government: Learning by Mistakes in Baltimore, 1947-82," Provenance, Volume 1 (Fall 1983): pp. 14-34; Principal author, Assessing Alabama's archives: a plan for the preservation of the state's historical records (Montgomery: Alabama Historical Records Advisory Board, 1985); with Anne S.K. Turkos, "Establishing Public Library Archives," Journal of Library History, Volume 21 (Summer 1986): pp. 574-84; "Alabama's Archival Heritage, 1850-1985," Alabama Review, Volume 40 (October 1987): pp. 284-307; Principal author, Strengthening New York's historical records programs: a self-study guide (Albany, N. Y.: New York State Archives and Records Administration, 1988); "Fundraising for Historical Records Programs: An Undeveloped Archival Function," Provenance, Volume 6 (Fall 1988): pp. 1-19; "A Documentation Strategy Case Study: Western New York," American Archivist, Volume 52 (Spring 1989): pp. 192-200.

8. For the institute on electronic records management, refer to my "The Roles of Graduate and Continuing Education in Preparing Archivists for the Information Age," American Archivist, Volume 56 (Summer 1993): pp. 444-57 and, The First generation of electronic records archivists in the United States: a study in professionalization (New York: Haworth Press, 1994). For the project on recordkeeping functional requirements, refer to

9. A basic orientation to the early history of American documentary editing can be gained by reading Lester J. Cappon, 1973. "American Historical Editors Before Jared Sparks," William and Mary Quarterly, third series, Volume 30, number 3, pp. 375-400.

10. Bert James Lowenberg, American history in American thought: Christopher Columbus to Henry Adams (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972) provides ample discussion of these editorial projects.

11. David D. Van Tassel, 1960. Recording America's past: an interpretation of the development of historical studies in America 1607-1884. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

12. Victor Gondos, Jr., 1981. J. Franklin Jameson and the birth of the National Archives 1906-1926. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

13. Mary A. Giunta, 1986. "The NHPRC: Its Influence on Documentary Editing, 1964-1984," American Archivist, Volume 49, number 2, pp. 134-141.

14. G. Thomas Tanselle, 1978. "The Editing of Historical Documents," Studies in Bibliography, Volume 31, and issued as a separate pamphlet.

15. Elizabeth Hamer Kegan, 1977. "A Becoming Regard to Posterity," American Archivist, Volume 40, number 1, pp. 5-15.

16. Constance B. Schulz, 1988. "'From Generation Unto Generation: Transistions in Modern Documentary Historical Editing," Reviews in American History, Volume 16, number 3, pp. 337-350.

17. Giunta, "The NHPRC."

18. Charles T. Cullen, 1989. "Casual Observer Beware: The Need for Using Scholarly Editions," Prologue, Volume 21, number 1, pp. 68-74.

19. For my full view on this study, see my "Archivists and the Use of Archival Records: Or, A View from the World of Documentary Editing," Provenance, Volume 9 (1991 [1992]): pp. 89-110.

20. Paul H. Bergeron, 1971. "True Valor Seen: Historical Editing," American Archivist, Volume 34, number 3, pp. 259-264.

21. The best treatment of the early development of the modern American archival profession remains William F. Birdsall, 1973. "The American Archivists' Search for Professional Identity, 1909-1936," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

22. See my American archival analysis: the recent development of the archival profession in the United States (Metuchen, N. J.: Scarecrow Press, 1990).

23. Alan B. Spitzer, 1996. Historical truth and lies about the past: reflections on Dewey, Dreyfus, de Man, and Reagan. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

24. See, for example, Edward T. Linenthal and Tom Engelhardt, (eds.), 1996. History wars: the Enola Gay and other battles for the American past. New York: Metropolitan Books, and, Philip Nobile, (ed.), 1995. Judgment at the Smithsonian. New York: Marlowe and Co.

25. Publications on this topic are far too numerous to cite or even to summarize, but the implications of such writings for archival writing have been explored in my "The Concept of Public Memory and Its Impact on Archival Public Programming," Archivaria, Volume 36 (Autumn 1993): pp. 122-35.

26. Michael Heim, 1993. The Metaphysics of virtual reality. New York: Oxford University Press. See also his Electric language: a philosophical study of word processing (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

27. It is interesting to note that in other contexts we have used the length of time to edit and publish texts as an illustration of the problems of technology and language. Johanna Neuman, in her Lights, camera, war: is media technology driving international politics? (New York: St. Martins Press, 1996), p. 55, noted evidence for the burden of printing in China, with its 80,000 symbols in its language, is that "it took 23 years to edit and print the 130 volumes of Confucian classics." Such a time frame for one of these editorial projects would be considered extraordinary.

28. Ian Buruma, 1994. The Wages of guilt: memories of war in Germany and Japan. New York: Meridan, and, Mike Wallace, 1996. Mickey Mouse history and other essays on American history. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

29. The Society of American Archivists did issue a statement on the NHPRC situation, posted at http:/ The statement expressed the importance of electronic records as a priority in managing the nation's documentary heritage.

30. Richard Z. Chesnoff, 1997. "Fifty Years Too Late, A Reckoning," U. S. News and World Report, Volume 122 (March 17), p. 43.

31. Frederika J. Teute, 1980. "Views in Review: A Historiographical Perspective on Historical Editing," American Archivist, Volume 43, number 1, pp. 43-56.

32. Included in Leslie W. Dunlap and Fred Shelley, (eds.), 1976. The Publication of American historical manuscripts. Iowa City: University of Iowa Libraries, pp. 97-105.

33. Richard H. Kohn and George M. Curtis, III, 1981. "The Government, the Historical Profession, and Historical Editing: A Review," Reviews in American History, Volume 9, number 2, pp. 145-155.

34. Brooks D. Simpson, 1989. "Editors, Editing, and the Historical Profession," Organization of American Historians (OAH) Newsletter, Volume 17, number 2, pp. 8-9.

35. Richard J. Cox, 1994. "The Record: Is It Evolving?" Records & Retrieval Report, Volume 10 (March), and, "What's In A Name? Archives As a Multi-Faceted Term in the Information Professions." Records & Retrieval Report, Volume 11 (March).

36. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, 1991. "The Earliest Precursor of Writing," In: William S-Y. Wang, (ed.), The Emergence of language: development and evolution. New York: W.H. Freeman and Co., pp. 31-45.

37. Rosalind Thomas, 1992. Literacy and orality in ancient Greece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

38. M. T. Clanchy, 1993. From memory to written record: England, 1066-1307. Revised edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

39. John O. Green, 1997. The New age of communications. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

40. Nicholas Negroponte, 1995. Being digital. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

41. James R. Beniger, 1986. The Control revolution: technological and economic origins of the information society. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

42. Stewart Brand, 1987. The Media lab: inventing the future at MIT. New York: Viking.

43. Clifford Lynch, 1997. "Searching the Internet," Scientific American, Volume 276, number 3, pp. 52-56.

44. Tom Blanton, (ed.), 1995. White House e-mail. New York: New Press.

45. Kevin P. Kearns, 1996. Managing for accountability: preserving the public trust in public and nonprofit organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

46. See for links to the ways this project has been used.

47. This paper was prepared in March 1997, revised in May 1997 and again revised in June 1997.

Copyright © 1997, First Monday

Messrs. Washington, Jefferson, and Gates: Quarrelling About the Preservation of the Documentary Heritage of the United States by Ricgard J. Cox.
First Monday, Volume 2, Number 8 - 4 August 1997

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.