Originally published on LinkedIn on January 22, 2023.
Recently, an article in The Epoch Times, a far-right conspiracy-prone publication affiliated with the Falun Gong religious movement, by Nathan Worcester, blared “Background Reviews of Top Officials Lend Credence to GOP Allegations of Bias at National Archives.” The article stated that leading Republicans in U.S. House and Representatives are searching for possible “bias” in the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), citing a letter to current Acting Archivist Debra Steidel Wall by James Comer, the new chair of the House Oversight Committee, declaring that he was “investigating whether there is a political bias” at NARA, claiming that there was “inconsistent treatment” of recovering classified records held by the former President and President Biden. The article also cites “authorities” like Mike Davis who heads an organization (Article III Project) which “defends constitutionalist judges…and opposes judicial and other nominees who are outside of the mainstream”, professor Daniel Z. Epstein, a member of the conservative libertarian Federal Society, a lawyer for the former president Reed Rubinstein, and conservative journalist Megan Fox to support its narrative that NARA has “liberal” bias.
The article then claims that NARA leaders have “long championed the left-wing and partisan Democratic views pervasive in Washington and its wealthy suburbs.” They use biographical information about NARA’s general counsel, Gary Stern, Acting Archivist Wall, and Biden’s nominee for Archivist of the United States (Colleen Shogan), denials of FOIA requests by NARA about the Mar-a-Lago search, financial contributions to political campaigns, to “prove” supposed partisanship and “left-leaning” views of these “bureaucrats”. Even so, they admit that there was “concern” among those at NARA “about [Hillary] Clinton’s handling of records” and that the agency is “slowly releasing records” about the Mar-a-Lago search. This article unsurprisingly tied this focus to the recent election of Emily Drabinski, taking office as the new American Library Association president in July, who said she was a “Marxist lesbian” following her election. The publication left out that she called this comment “an excited utterance” and said she would serve all librarians regardless of political views. The article culminates in the claim that if supposed political bias continues then American people may have “deeper questions about the institution’s ability to remain neutral in an increasingly politicized world”. This is echoed by their earlier claim that Yale Law School is a “more neutral (or formerly neutral) institution.”
The realities of NARA are far different than what The Epoch Times has stated. David Ferriero refused to do what some liberals and progressives, like those in the ERA Coalition, called for: post the Equal Rights Amendment as an official constitutional amendment. However, Ferriero, following the advice of the Office of Legal Counsel, which said the ERA can no longer be ratified because the deadline has passed, decided to not do so. It is here that it is worth quoting from my November 2022 newsletter, in which I said, about the confirmation hearing of Colleen Shogan:
…Shogan, for her part, said she was committed to more transparency, opening Civil Rights cold cases…She also said she would not decide the ERA unilaterally, stated she was nonpartisan and nonpolitical, and noted commitments to transparency, efficiency, and so-called “public private partnerships”. She said reducing the backlog of requests for veteran records as the “most important discrete problem” facing her if she is confirmed as the archivist…Shogan stated that “the Archivist serves in the capacity, in a nonpartisan, apolitical capacity.” She also noted that NARA will need to “find creative ways to become more efficient, to capitalize upon public-private partnerships, and to engage previously underserved communities in meaningful ways”. This is in line with what David Ferriero has done when he served as archivist from November 2009 to April 2022. She stated that the ERA…for which the archivist has the legal responsibility to “certify each state ratification of a proposed amendment and, once 38 states have ratified, publish the amendment in the Constitution”, could only have its fate decided by “the federal judiciary and/or Congress,” a response which pleased reactionary people.”
This statement was flatly rejected by the ERA Coalition, which argued that the “role of the U.S. Archivist is ministerial in nature” and that the ERA has fulfilled all constitutional requirements and the Archivist “has a statutory duty to publish it.”
The Epoch Times could not bother to mention the incident in which Ferriero supported the closure of the NARA facility in Anchorage in 2014, the 2020 decision by NARA to censor a photograph containing signs critical of the former president and references to women’s autonomy, and the proposed closure of the Federal Records Center in Seattle which was proposed in December 2019 and later stopped in April 2021. The article also overlooked the fact that Wall and Shogan support the continued public-private partnerships to digitize archival records, something which Ferriero began and continued. Currently, NARA records have been digitized by Ancestry, Fold3 (owned by Ancestry) and FamilySearch (controlled by the Mormons). There are current digitization partnerships with:
- for-profit companies (Ancestry.com, its Fold3 subsidiary, Moon Collectors, LLC, Paradise Entertainment, Limited)
- lineage-based non-profits (Daughters of the American Revolution)
- the Mormons (FamilySearch)
- public institutions (Le Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Digital Commonwealth, Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, Veterans Affairs Department, and Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland)
- quasi-public institutions (The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis)
- other non-profits (Barack Obama Foundation)
In years before Ferriero was Archivist of the United States there were partnerships with the EMC Corporation, Google, the University of Texas, and many others.
All this makes the claim that people such as Ferriero, Shogan, and Wall are left-wing as laughable. If this was the case, then why would they have gone to private companies and non-profits to digitize information? This is probably because they don’t want people to know what scholar Jarrett M. Drake argued in 2020: that the national and state governments that partner with FamilySearch certain “untold millions of dollars” by sharing their records for indexing and digitization, and that “millions of archival records have been made available by incarcerated labor.” This is something that will never be mentioned in The Epoch Times.
One aspect that the publication is correct about is that NARA is not neutral. The claims of neutral continually asserted by the organization’s leaders is incorrect. However, this does not mean that the institution is partisan, but rather that such neutrality is impossible. As I wrote back in February 2022, the actions of archivists do not occur in a vacuum, but are “connected to larger political and social structures, and affected by society itself.” Instead archives, like museums, libraries, and galleries, are not neutral spaces, but are, rather, contested ones, with sources which are not neutral. This article, and the request by the newly elected House Republicans further reinforce this idea. This should be recognized before it is too late. As Drake argued, “archives have never been neutral – they are the creation of human beings, who have politics in their nature.”
Neutrality in archives is impossible. In fact, SAA President Courtney Chartier wrote in April 2022, that “if we claim neutrality, then we uphold evil institutional and personal communities” and stating that those archivists who “refused to document the contributions of certain people, or created hostile educational and work experiences for their fellow archivists” are not neutral. This is the reality that The Epoch Times and others who appeal to neutrality would like to ignore. The same goes for the fact that these reactionaries would like you to forget about: NARA has been consistently underfunded. My colleague, Lauren Harper, at the National Security Archive pointed this out in a post last year:
The National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) budget has remained stagnant in real dollars for nearly thirty years…While its budget has flatlined, the number of records NARA must preserve, particularly electronic records, has increased exponentially over three decades…NARA is stretched too thin in normal times, and its insufficient budget and statutory authority were no match for the Trump administration’s disdain for records management…NARA’s current budget is a recipe for disaster…Budget woes are not new for the agency…decreasing budgets and staffing shortages hamper some of the most critical offices within NARA…Staffing issues play out in less obvious ways, too. One pernicious example is that it results in limited oversight of agency records retention schedules…Our audits make clear that NARA needs to actively oversee the electronic records management process, as opposed to taking agency self-assessments at their word…The next AOTUS needs more than just resources, they will need to maximize the authority they have and be granted more.
This is likely a major reason for the continued digitization partnerships. Instead of helping NARA overcome these issues, the upcoming investigation by Congressional Republicans into false claims of “partisanship” at the agency will only divert funds away from necessary tasks and put more records, and people’s jobs, in jeopardy. One could surmise that the investigation itself is an effort to delegitimize the institution and even set the groundwork for its possible privatization if certain people are elected into Congress or the Presidency. In any case, such investigations will be accompanied by calls to further reduce the budget of NARA, instead of giving it the resources it needs so it can hire additional staff, improve its work culture, and digitize more records in-house without having to resort to digitization partnerships. Otherwise, the cultural memory of the U.S. will remain at risk, as will the ability to “protect and preserve a future.”
© 2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.