Missing documents — in this case because of a recalcitrant former president in apparent defiance of both the Presidential Records Act and other laws governing government records — are just one of the many ways documents of archives are incomplete. Public (government) and private archives have often been biased and exclusive, collecting and sharing mostly materials from elites or materials created from their perspective. Just as NARA makes a very public effort to secure the records of the previous presidential administration, archivists in the United States and even around the world have lobbied for ever more critical scrutiny their own institutional practices and those of others.
It was not always possible to locate let alone use federal archives. Although the U.S. government has always been concerned about record keeping, prior to the creation of NARA in 1934, government records were kept in “various basements, attics, abandoned buildings and other storage places with little security or concern for storage conditions“, reports the story of the Archives.
Now based in Washington, D.C., in an iconic building on Pennsylvania Avenue that houses the Federal Archives and also displays the Declaration of Independence, Federal Constitution, and Bill of Rights, NARA also operates more than 40 regional facilities and centers across the United States. United. Since its origin through the National Archives Act, NARA lists the Federal Records Act of 1950 and the Presidential Records Act of 1978 among the landmark laws that made the agency responsible for managing records produced by the federal government.
Governments have been widely interested in keeping records of their own activities, such as property records, licenses, meetings of government bodies, legislation, court decisions, etc. There are national archives in countries all over the world. There are also state libraries and archives across the United States. Cities and counties often also have public records offices or archives. In Rhode Island, for example, state archives are managed by the Secretary of State and “house more than 10 million letters, photographs, and important state documents that constitute a permanent and tangible record of Rhode Island’s rich history.” To Providence, city archives hold approximately 40,000 cubic feet of records providing a detailed window into the development and functioning of municipal government since 1636.
And these are just the publicly managed and maintained archives. The 19th century was a particularly fertile period for the creation of private archival organizations. Regional, local and thematic historical societies, universities and many more have rich archival collections documenting the history of places, people, institutions and ideas. Founded in 1822, for example, the Rhode Island Historical Society has “the largest and most significant historical collections relating to Rhode Island”. County and township historical societies, tribal nation archives and libraries, and community collections all provide places to collect and share materials and memories of the past.
Many of these institutions have been leading advocates of public access to records essential to our country’s history. The Massachusetts Historical Society, for example, founded in 1791, was the nation’s first historical society. Among its most important holdings are the papers of Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. He cataloged and curated these articles, and worked with documentary publishers to research and contextualize them, including their direct support for the Editorial project Adams Papers. It then worked with the National Archives and other partners to make these records available to everyone through the online portal. Online Founderswhich gives specialist researchers and the general public extraordinary access to these materials.
But as vast as these collections are, they are very incomplete. Most public and private institutions have a much larger body of material documenting white and elite lives and political and economic histories than those documenting the lives of Black or indigenous people or cultural stories. Wealthy families often kept family papers and then took their family archives to local historical societies, for example, and public records often overrepresented wealthier individuals, keeping people marginalized, well, marginalized. Researchers have had to be creative in extracting the stories of marginalized people from elite sources.
Historian Erica Armstrong Dunbar, for example, wrote a book about Ona Judge, a woman enslaved by George and Martha Washington who ran for freedom and was pursued by Washington and his agents. While two invaluable interviews Judge herself gave late in her life to abolitionist journals provided insight into this crucial story, Washington’s aggressive pursuit of Judge can be read in her letters via Founders Online.
It’s not just the relative scarcity of materials that has long weighed our stories in favor of elite stories, however. This disparity also results from institutional priorities for collection and preservation. In a candid statement in 2020, the Alabama State Archives acknowledged its role in perpetuating partial—and racist—history. The first state-funded and independent nation’s state archives, the Alabama Department of Records and History was founded in 1901 “to remedy the lack of proper management of government records”. But, write its archivists, “for more than half a century the agency has committed considerable resources to the acquisition of Confederate documents and artifacts while refusing to acquire and preserve records documenting the life and contributions of African Americans in Alabama”.
This statement came during intense public debates about why we learn, read and remember the stories we make. The tenacity of the Lost Cause mythology is a stark example of how partial stories are centuries in the making.
Explicitly and deliberately leaving out false stories, the bias of history comes from telling some aspects of the past and not others, the stories of some and not others. They result from the existence of voluminous historical records on some people and groups, and relatively little on others. And they are also the result of archival institutions and libraries that have long collected and organized material that privileges certain aspects, certain people, certain stories.
Just as it is important to act to ensure that the archive file is as complete as possible, it is also important to understand why and how it became so partial. Archival records are a necessary component of responsible and democratic government. The National Archives are, according to their own definition, the “national record holder.” Incomplete and selective record keeping leads to incomplete and selective history.
Fortunately, change is underway as archives and libraries reflect on their own institutional histories and practices. Trump’s efforts to obstruct the historical record by evading the National Archives are unlikely to succeed. But his blatant efforts to twist history offer a useful opportunity to consider all the ways our histories have been partial — and need to be more complete.