This post was written by DPhil candidate Patrick Sandman, and first appeared on the RAI Events blog. It is reposted here with permission for the interest of VHL readers.
In a well-attended and interesting workshop, Nancy Smith, the Director of the Presidential Materials Division at the U.S. National Archives, discussed the history and accessibility of presidential papers to a group of undergraduates, graduates, and professional historians.
Beginning the discussion with FDR in 1939, Director Smith detailed the trajectory of presidential libraries and materials. Fifteen years after Roosevelt donated selected material to a library in Hyde Park, NY, Congress passed the Presidential Library Act in 1955. For the next two decades, presidents donated and distributed papers at their own discretion. For Director Smith and millions of Americans, however, the tradition of presidential papers would change in July 1973.
During his testimony to Sam Ervin’s Senate Committee, White House Assistant Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of President Nixon’s infamous White House taping system. As a result of the calamity, contention, and cynicism surrounding Watergate, Congress created the Presidential Records Act in 1978 to broaden public accessibility to the office of the President.
During the last forty years, Director Smith has worked closely with Presidents and their records. She highlighted the difficulty of cataloging executive information, particularly the often-contentious process of delineating the personal and private from the public and presidential. As such, she often deals with presidential staff and lawyers in order to properly archive non-classified information.
Interestingly, the advent of electronic records has added a new, complex dimension to presidential material. For George W. Bush’s administration alone, Ms. Smith and her staff will screen more than twenty million emails. Despite the tremendous challenge of vast email compilation, the PMD, under the guidance of Director Smith, makes presidential material available faster than any other place in the world.
Before ending the discussion, Director Smith provided excellent advice to an audience of historians. She disseminated packets of information on various Presidential libraries around the United States and encouraged researchers to explore new collections and archives.
Editor’s note: To add to Patrick’s interesting summary, there’s a lot of information about the Presidential Libraries on the National Archives website at http://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/, as well as links to the websites of the libraries themselves. Most of the Presidential Libraries are engaged in digitisation projects to a greater or lesser extent, and their websites can be a good source of documents even without travelling to visit. The National Archives has also set up the Presidential Timeline website to provide a single point of access to digitised sources from the Presidential Libraries.
And for even more, if you’ll excuse the blatant plug, I visited two of the libraries myself last year as part of my Travelling Librarian trip – you might be interested therefore in my write-ups of my visits to the FDR Library and the JFK Library.
And finally, Nancy Smith also spoke later in the day about the role of the National Archives in presidential transitions. This talk has been written up on the RAI blog by both Skye Montgomery and Sebastian Page.