Archivists struggle to preserve Clinton impeachment record

One year after the impeachment trial of President Clinton, Senate historians are quietly taking oral histories of clerks, parliamentarians and other support staff who were the eyes, ears and workers at the historic event. And the biggest problem they are facing is how to preserve the words of eyewitnesses.

Although Senate historians are taping interviews and plan to transfer them to compact discs, they have not yet resolved the problem of a technology that does not last forever.

"Archivists are dubious about how long CDs will last," said Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian. "It's going to be a big problem. We'll monitor it, and if we detect any problems, we'll act to preserve them."

As a backup, historians also are transcribing and printing the histories, because a CD lasts about 25 years before disintegrating.

"The problem with both tape and CD is that the medium on which the information is recorded is quite fragile," said Abby Smith, director of programs for the Council on Library and Information Resources. "The only way to preserve any oral history is to transcribe it onto acid-free paper."

The oral histories — about 20 interviews — are part of an ongoing project that started in 1976 to gather the recollections of former members and staffers about how things worked in the Senate.

The Senate World Wide Web site (www.senate.gov) includes two oral histories online — Jesse R. Nichols, the first African American clerk who worked in the Senate from 1937-71 and Sen. George A. Smathers (D-Fla.), who served in the Senate from 1951-69.

But it is Clinton's trial, which ended with an acquittal on Feb. 12, 1999, that is expected to get the most attention from historians and impeachment buffs in the future.

Among those queried for their bird's eye view of history, are the "people who wouldn't normally be interviewed," including people who worked at the Senate desk; those who printed the tickets; the people who arranged for the chief justice to come across the street and those who set up accommodations for prosecutors and defense lawyers, according to Ritchie.

The material will be sealed for 20 years to protect the privacy of those who agree to talk. Unlike other historical records sealed for 50 or 75 years, it is likely that many of those participating in the project will still be living when the material is released, including Clinton, now 53.

"Our purpose is to create a record. We don't want spin. We want facts and people's perceptions," Ritchie said.

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