America’s Next Top Presidential Libraries Model

October 4, 2009

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) recently published their Report On Alternative Models For Presidential Libraries, an institutional review mandated by Congress to develop prospective archive models that would attempt to balance issues of cost savings, improved preservation, and increased access. (Even the big dogs have to deal with the impossible seeming task of producing more while spending less…)

Though not a light read, it does, like many of NARA’s initiatives and reports, offer plenty of tips, inspirations, or supportive arguments for preservation practices and projects. For example, the importance of “non-textual funding” for creating preservation copies of AV materials is underscored. These assets need a different kind of attention than textual materials, and consideration and funding of that “has resulted not only in better access to holdings, but also improved preservation of the original tapes” (pg. 20).

Also of note in the NARA report are sections like the one delineating proposed changes to how presidential records are processed (pgs. 25-26). Combined with the necessary review for sensitive content and the huge amount of materials suddenly available after the end of a presidency, the heavy influx of requests through the Freedom of Information Act created a sluggish response time. Searching through unprocessed folders while trying to maintain provenance and performing traditional start-to-finish processing became a hindrance to acceptable response times.

Instead, as in other archives, the implementation of a tiered system of processing prioritization has been established which takes into consideration content types. Categories such as “frequently requested,” “historically significant,” or “non-sensitive” are prioritized accordingly, thereby contributing to improved resource allocation and speedier progress.

The five alternative models to NARA’s current operational model are too specific to their history, organizational structure, and mission to discuss in depth here. Instead, three additional important points can be gleaned from NARA’s reporting process:

1. As we know too well, the continual spectre of too much work and too few resources is daunting. Strategic partnerships, pooling of resources, or repository models; exploring new areas to use assets or create access; and exploiting powerful new tools and technologies are just some of the things that should be considered in working to improve the functionality of archives and ensuring their long-term sustainability.

2. The consideration of different aspects of centralization versus decentralization is key. Just as certain audiovisual formats require a reconceptualization of the asset that separates the consideration of content from the consideration of the physical carrier, the archive itself can undergo renewed consideration from the idea of a central location to one of multiple / virtual entities. Of course, this must be accomplished while still adhering to fundamental principles of preservation. What this means is that the “virtual” needs to be understood on its own terms in order to be fully and properly utilized, just as some of the unique aspects of audiovisual archiving have needed to be understood separately from traditional paper archiving in order to apply the same kinds of standards and principles.

3. A finer point is held within Alternative Model 4 (pgs. 43-46) of a centralized archival depository where all presidential records would be maintained, unlike the current model where an archive and a museum are dedicated to a single president and those facilities are located, typically, in the president’s home state. This alternative model would involve building a new facility as well as planning and implementing a large scale digital archive for storage and access — certainly daunting, costly tasks. However, what is of note with Alternative Model 4 is that it has the largest initial cost outlay to implement but that, in the long run, it will provide more archiving jobs as costs can be reallocated from what would have been decentralized facilities, will make for more efficient access, and, ultimately, it will save more money than the alternative models offered that are less expensive at the initial implementation.

Alternative Model 4 has its pros and cons like the others, but an important lesson here is one of time. Archiving and preservation are long range efforts concerning the persistence of the past well into the future. As such, they deserve far-sighted planning and goals. This can be a difficult struggle to implement, and may not have results one sees in ones lifetime, but there are ways to model, to plan, and to advocate for the collection and for the generations to come.

—¬†Joshua Ranger