I have spent most of my life working in archives. It was my “happy places”, a quiet world of dusty papers and buried treasures that took me from a tiny archive in Dumfries to the Library of Congress, then to large repositories in England, Poland, Israel, in the United States and especially in France, where I spent much of my life in dark rooms while studying pieces of paper that often fell into my hands.
Yet even after decades of immersive archival work, I have only recently begun to see archivists – those talented individuals who preserve and navigate historical records – as heroes. History matters, and every nation owes a significant debt of gratitude to the people and institutions that preserve and archive what remains. They are the keepers of the past.
The records of the US government – in this case, those created by the executive branch – belong to the federal government and, by extension, to the nation. In the United States, the Presidential Records Act governs the management of records during the period following the departure of a president. This fact means that the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) oversees the release of the records through the Freedom of Information Act. Archive administrators also help determine what can be viewed immediately and what should be restricted for security reasons and/or to protect individuals.
NARA has created a website to document its latest attempt to ensure compliance with the Presidential Records Act. The website’s sources reveal NARA’s pursuit of the missing documents from January to August, when FBI agents, armed with a federal search warrant, descended on Mar-a-Lago to recover documents that had been improperly transported, stored, mishandled and/or alienated, and therefore potentially available to domestic adversaries.
The former president claimed executive privilege in his multiple refusals and delays to hand over his administration’s records; however, in the Supreme Court’s decision Nixon v. General Services Administration, it was determined long ago that a president cannot exercise privilege “against the very executive branch on whose behalf the privilege is asserted.” Letters from NARA further reveal that archivists began explaining policy and procedure regarding record keeping to the former president in 2017 and provided compliance and ethics training to members of his office. administration.
Documents on the NARA website reveal a pattern of abuse regarding the transfer of records, forcing the FBI to take unprecedented action. Political pundits speak of national security threats due to the former president’s cavalier or possibly criminal actions regarding record keeping.
What should be emphasized most strongly is that an incumbent president must have access to the files of his predecessor, just like the FBI and other American intelligence services. An incumbent, and therefore the nation itself, can be at great risk when critical records are not in place, when records of the predecessor are missing or unknown. We the people are also betrayed when vital documents are not kept in accordance with archival best practices developed to ensure the preservation of an accurate record of what happened in the nation’s past.
Archivists are often thought of as isolated figures who speak in low voices and impose the use of pencils in reading rooms. But in this case, I envision NARA archivists as national heroes deserving of Presidential Medals of Honor for protecting not only the nation’s security, but also American history. They are the frontline defenders in a critical battle against the dark forces of denial who, given the chance, would create a historical narrative filled with errors and lies, a process made more likely when historical records have gone missing. .
Visit the website to learn more about these national heroes and NARA’s critical importance at this time in American history: archives.gov/foia/pra-trump-admin.
Annette Finley-Croswhite, Ph.D.is a professor of history at Old Dominion University.