The Paper Trust

PrintPrintEmailEmail

If the President exerts his right to put his papers in a marble monument built by hometown friends in a location far from traditional seats of learning, the conscientious archivist has no choice but to follow them there, care for them, and display them under whatever conditions are allowed. If he is a truly hard-working archivist—as all the Presidential library directors are—he will urge the President’s co-workers also to deposit their papers there. He is not likely to get such deposits without being able to give assurances that the public will not soon be let into the donor’s inner life; as the mediator between the future historian and the gun-shy subjects of history, his first rule of operation is to get the material preserved. The Presidential libraries have actually hastened a policy of accumulation that would ordinarily have taken generations.

The papers of the First Ladies, too, are an important source of history hitherto ignored, before they became part of Presidential-library collections. In the case of Eleanor Roosevelt, her own independent career generated so large a collection that it is being moved into a new wing of the Roosevelt Library, to be opened in 1971 and to become in itself an important center for the study of the politics, social problems, and philanthropic work of her time.

Galling as the policy of restriction is, the library spokesmen note that a larger amount of Presidential material is open than ever before, and open to all comers, critical or not. (The only entrance test for access to unclassified material is a statement of some reasonable purpose.) One former director of the Roosevelt Library enjoyed pointing out that Roosevelt’s papers were processed and opened for use in 1950, five years after the President’s death. Eighty-five per cent of the material, he declared, was open to inspection. Yet only three years before, in 1947, the Library of Congress had proudly opened a large collection of Abraham Lincoln papers that had been closed until then by the desire of the donor, Lincoln’s son. The papers of both Presidents Adams were not available for public use until the middle 1960’s. Other Presidential papers lay hidden for decades.

The fact is that the historians are succumbing, like others in modern times, to a revolution of rising expectations. More is available to them than ever before, and their appetite grows by what it feeds on. The archivists claim that they encourage rather than deplore this hunger. Each library proudly points to the number of “researcher visits” it experiences each year (around a thousand each for the Roosevelt and Truman libraries from July 1, 1969, to June 30, 1970) and to the growing list of books, articles, and dissertations founded primarily on its materials.

The Truman Library happily cooperates with a privately created and financed nonprofit organization, the Harry S. Truman Library Institute for National and International Affairs, which aims to provide grants-in-aid to scholars using the library, to foster publications based on its materials, and to sponsor conferences on topics stemming from developments of the Truman period. This institute may be a model for other libraries. Former President Johnson is known to hope that his library will also sponsor seminars on social, environmental, and economic problems, which will draw together the experts and the documents. The museum directors, too, attempt to keep their materials on display in a manner that educates as well as attracts the public.

Such activities are a long way from the caginess and record-hugging attributed to the libraries by some critics. But, strangely, the collecting energies of the directors raise some other disturbing reflections. It is possible that the sheer glut of material may defeat historians to come. The information explosion threatens to bury them in documentation. Clicking Xerox machines, microfilm cameras, and whirling tape reels all proliferate information. In point of fact, even if all future Presidents were compelled to leave their official records in Washington, it would be necessary to build completely new repositories to hold them, simply because of the multiplying size of the Executive Department and because its officials, like those of all Washington, are pouring out a rising flood of paper. The National Archives building itself long ago became inadequate as the sole reservoir. In 1950 a program of decentralization was put in motion, designed to set up new Federal Records Centers throughout the country. There are now fifteen of them, housing 10.8 million cubic feet of records. And the torrent is not abating.

But the wrenching irony is that not all of this is gold for history. The duplicating machines immeasurably encourage the preservation of routine papers. And two other inventions—the telephone and the jet airplane—nibble away at the materials of major significance. When Abraham Lincoln wished to say something to General Grant in Virginia, he had to send a telegram or write a note. But when Lyndon Johnson felt the need to speak to General Westmoreland, he had only to pick up the telephone to Saigon—or to fly there himself, or have the General fly to Washington, in a matter of hours. And such face-to-face or over-the-wire conferences may never be recorded.