'Anytime, any place' archivist
- By William Matthews
- Aug 28, 2000
When he was nominated to be archivist of the United States in 1995, John
Carlin was not a popular choice. Sixteen professional history, archival
and library associations opposed his nomination. The associations argued
that the former Kansas governor, legislator, business executive, dairy farmer
and professor had no background in document preservation, and professionals
in the field worried that he might be unfit to usher the recordkeeping agency
into the digital age.
After this rocky start, Carlin gradually won over some of his critics.
"As it turns out, the National Archives under John Carlin has made significant
progress on many issues important to archivists and historians," said William
Maher, former president of the Society of American Archivists, one of the
organizations that opposed Carlin's nomination.
Maher, an archivist and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,
added, "He has done things that had been put on hold a long time." One of
those overdue projects is tackling the problem of long-term storage of electronic
Since the 1980s, government agencies have created hundreds of millions
of electronic records, but until recently, there was no practical plan for
their long-term preservation. Now Carlin says the Archives is well on its
way to building an electronic records archive that can keep records retrievable
and readable for hundreds of years.
Such an archive would make government records available "anytime, any
place" by anybody via the Internet, he said. And it could be operational
by 2004 or 2005, he told Federal Computer Week.
This high-tech vision stands in sharp contrast to Carlin's first stab
at electronic records management — an effort that landed him in federal
court. In 1995 he approved General Records Schedule 20, a records management
plan that permitted federal agencies to delete electronic records if they
made paper printouts for long-term storage. In 1996, when agencies began
to follow GRS-20, the advocacy group Public Citizen sued Carlin.
Historians and researchers were dismayed by GRS-20. Deleting the electronic
copies meant erasing an information trail that could reveal who had seen
and possibly contributed to the documents. From it, researchers could tell
a lot about the debates and decision- making behind government policies.
Carlin ultimately won the case, but he came to agree with his critics.
"I share with the plaintiffs the view that GRS-20 was not ideal, and in
fact we already are moving beyond it," he said in a speech last year.
Some say it was a turning point in his tenure as archivist. "Carlin
has finally come to grasp the issue of electronic records," said Patrice
McDermott, a policy analyst for OMB Watch and a frequent critic of the Archives.
"It has taken a while for him to get his arms around it, but he does seem
to be tackling it much more proactively than any of his predecessors did."
Still, the slow pace of progress means valuable records continue to be lost,
Michael Tankersley, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Carlin over
GRS-20, is more blunt. Carlin may have conceded that GRS-20 isn't ideal,
he said, but so far he's failed to replaced it. "The rhetoric has certainly
improved, but the policies that have been implemented are no different."
Under GRS-20, the Archives allows federal agencies to decide for themselves
how to treat electronic records. So some agencies are moving toward various
kinds of electronic record-keeping, while others print electronic records
onto paper and delete the electronic copies. Still others "cling to the
idea that electronic records are not records" and don't save them in any
form, Tankersley said.
Vast amounts of historically valuable information continue to be lost
because electronic records are not being saved in electronic form, said
historian and journalist Scott Armstrong. "The real record is the whole
trail — who wrote what, when," argues Armstrong, a plaintiff in the Public
Citizen suit against Carlin and another frequent Archives critic. Armstrong
said the destruction of electronic records threatens to leave a "records
gap" stretching from about 1990 to 2005 or 2008, which he calls "the Carlin
In response to that kind of criticism, Carlin defenders simply point
to his record. "Time has proven him, and the courts have upheld Carlin,"
said Robert Williams, president of Cohasset Associates Inc., an electronic
records management consulting firm.
"You have to recognize that the archival community is very academic,
very bright, but they do not necessarily have extra gas in the tank" when
it comes to the practical problem of implementing policy in the political
environment where government agencies must operate.
Carlin is not the first archivist to come under such fire. Similar partisan
battles had raged around archivists nominated during the Reagan and Bush
When he was nominated, Carlin's political background seemed a serious
liability, said Maher. The Archivist of the United States is appointed by
the president, but "it is supposed to be a non-political appointment. The
archivist presides over political papers, and therefore he must be nonpartisan."
Carlin hardly seemed to fit that description. He was a Democrat, "an
old buddy of President Clinton's from the National Governors' Association"
and "a very astute politician," Maher said.
In retrospect, his political acumen has served him well, said Williams.
The former governor has demonstrated his politician's polish when dealing
with the Archives' overseers on Capitol Hill and in the president's office.
"It is clear that he is plugging into the right people" in Congress, Williams
Maher agreed that Carlin has succeeded in securing funding and commitments
from both Congress and the administration. And Carlin's deft touch has managed
to placate some of his former foes. "He knew he had to mend fences and he
did," Maher said; Carlin attended meetings to discuss Archives issues with
organizations that had opposed him. Most important, "he began to look much
more seriously at the issue of electronic records." Said Cohasset's Williams:
"We are at a very, very critical juncture on electronic records, and Carlin
is moving in the right direction."
Carlin embraces the view that electronic records, because they are so
much more accessible, will eventually produce a more trustworthy attitude
The archivist, whose speech is usually careful and Kansas-flat, can
sound positively passionate about the importance of records. "I maintain
that records are a fundamental building block of democracy," he said.
Records do more than provide fodder for historians; they are the basis
for ensuring "the rights and entitlements of individuals," Carlin maintains.
To collect military benefits, for example, veterans must be able to produce
records that verify their service.
Some people question the value of keeping records indefinitely, but
Carlin noted that it's impossible to tell which ones may eventually become
A large collection of records with little or no use for many years was
the Nazi gold records from the Holocaust. "We sit on 15 million pages, and
they are now being researched by people from all over the world," Carlin
said. When the Archives can help people trace assets looted by the Nazis
more than a half-century ago, he said, "I feel the significance of what
He believes accessible documentation will keep citizens confident in
their government "even when the government screws up."
"If you look back over history, people become concerned primarily when
things are not accessible," he said. The 18 1/2-minute gap in the Nixon
tapes helped undermine trust in government, Carlin said, and the secrecy
surrounding John F. Kennedy's assassination led to "30 years of paranoia
and suspicion." Conspiracy theories began to sputter out in the 1990s when
more records were made public, he observed.
"Public access to public records is one of the hallmarks of open, accountable
democratic government," he said in congressional testimony in March. He
listed recent Archives' contributions to openness: Releasing 17 million
more pages of declassified government records; making available 445 more
hours of tapes from the Nixon administration; and releasing more documents
to the JFK Assassination Records Collection, which now houses 4.5 million
But the capstone will be the electronic records archive. By providing
online access to government records, the Archives will open them to everyone,
rather than a handful of scholars. "That will be a huge change," Carlin