Wednesday, June 25, 2008

JOURNALISM! (Or,"Do a little more research before you mouth off")

Oh, for Bob's sake. Alex Heard LOOKS like he is complaining in Slate today about the willy-nilly destruction of records, but in reality he is demonstrating a profound ignorance of how records management works. Some choice quotes:

The letter conjured up images of my file getting scrutinized by furrow-browed NARA scholars who decided that, alas, John R. Poole was not of sufficient historical interest to keep around.

Yeeesss. This would be called 'their job.' Believe it or not, most of what most agencies create IS junk! I know. I was shocked too.

Dismayed, I looked into how the Records Retention Plan works, with help from several generous FOIA experts. What they described sounded more like a Records Destruction Plan, since it allows the FBI to discard roughly 80 percent of its files at any given time. ... Though the NARA experts who helped create the plan tried to come up with a fair, workable system, the bottom line is that the FBI gets to trash mountains of historical source material without adequate oversight.

The oversight thing is a concern, yes, but the fact is that that roughly 80 percent of its files mostly IS junk. In fact, having worked with records for just over 4 years now, I'd venture that 80 percent is generous.

Like many people who make FOIA requests, I'm probably hypersensitive to the potential loss of any one file among millions,

Yep. You are. Look, it sucks that the archival profession can't save everything, but the fact is that archivists are overworked as it is, and our space requirements are never as large as we'd like them to be. If we didn't weed, we'd drown in paper and NONE of our users would be able to find ANYTHING.

The system's fundamentals make sense, I guess—very complicated sense—but to me the disturbing part comes at the end of the line. At some point 25 years after a case closes, a file that isn't marked "permanent" gets pulled and looked at by one or two people inside the FBI. There are no "knowledgeable representatives of the NARA" monitoring this crucial moment. If it's decided internally that the file isn't important, it's gone.

Umm... how are you determining that there are 'no knowledgeable representatives of NARA' within the FBI? You know, there may, in fact, be archivists within the FBI, and they may, in fact, know what they're doing (and, my guess is, they do work closely with NARA to determine what is important). I know that the FBI has a history of destroying files it doesn't want people to see, but you know, not ALL of its destruction is malicious.

Michael Ravnitzky, an FOIA researcher based in the Washington, D.C., area, is no fan of the Records Retention Plan and likens it to an open-ended manual for strip-mining a priceless public record.

Oh, because he's not biased AT ALL or anything.

But isn't the FBI destroying only junk? I doubt it. Ernie Lazar, an independent researcher in California whose particular interest is in far-right groups, sent me a list of "destroyed" responses he's received over the years from FBI headquarters and field offices. There are dozens. We'll never know if they were significant—they don't exist anymore—but they sure look interesting to me. In 1994, for example, the Baltimore field office destroyed a file called "Arab Participation and Influence of Hate Literature in the United States."

See above snark. Also, you REALLY can't judge the value of a folder by its name. For example, we have a ton of folders in our Student Affairs files about student organizations, but for the most part these are just registration forms. Not remotely interesting, but we keep them for evidential value. Based on the signal:noise ratio over most of the records that have been created since the 1950s, my guess is that these were similarly useless.

Even if the Records Retention Plan team had scrutinized every page, I wouldn't trust their ability to decide now what might be significant to someone 100 years down the road.

...I don't even know how to respond to this. Do you think maybe somebody on the team had a background in history? Maybe? And no, that doesn't make their judgment infallible, but it's not a bad start. Also, please keep in mind that given the volume of documentation that's been produced since 1950, and given the volume of it that HAS been saved, the chances are pretty good that we're saving SOMETHING of import to future historians.

There's no general index to the NARA holdings that lists this information using comprehensible subject headings like "John Birch Society" or "Judge Crater."

Look, I'm sure that the NARA folks would LOVE to have a general index of their holdings. I'm sure they're working on it. Their entire job is to provide service and information to the public, for crying out loud. But part of their providing service and information is dealing with people who are whining because they haven't created that index yet, which, you know, takes time.

My final gripe: The volume of the FBI files isn't that mind-boggling.... The half-million cubic feet of FBI documents from 1981 would have fit into about a dozen McMansions, packed floor to ceiling. The stuff was already cataloged and cross-referenced, so a simpler strategy would have been to keep it all together....To protect this priceless collection of FBI material, all it would have taken was shelves, guards, and about 20,000 smoke alarms.

Uhh... I don't think you realize how much material that actually is. A really good archivist can process a cubic foot of material in about 2 hours, if the material is well-organized to begin with. By this measure, the 500,000 c.f. of material will take 1 million man hours to complete, or 125,000 work days of 8 hours each. I REALLY don't think NARA wants to devote that much time to one collection. Also, you do know that shelves, guards, and smoke alarms cost money, right? You know, that thing that NARA doesn't have a ton of?

Gah. I'm no defender of the FBI's penchant for secrecy, but this is a kerfluffle over nothing. Records get destroyed! Sometimes the record you want is a casualty! It happens! It happens a lot LESS now that retention schedules are in place! There's probably SOME malice involved, but I doubt very much that the FBI said "let's cover our tracks by destroying every minor file in our collection, muahahaha." More likely, they said "We're drowning in paper, help us Obi-Wan NARA, you're our only hope."

This is exactly why I think every academic who works in the archives should take a course on appraisal. I mean HONESTLY.