'Anytime, any place' archivist

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

records.

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,

she said.

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

gap."

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

administrations.

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

said.

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

toward government.

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

important.

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

we do."

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

pages.

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

said.

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