The ability of scholars to conduct research on important political, social, and environmental events in modern American history is under a pressing if seemingly routine threat.

The Department of the Interior (DOI) has proposed a timeline by which to destroy an unspecified number of files spanning 200 records and the last 50 years, including those related to the management of natural resources—energy and minerals, fishing and wildlife, and national parks—and Native American affairs. The news of this plan was flagged by transparency agencies, and has prompted a debate among academics, archivists, and others concerned about the nature and potential impact of this request. People have until November 26, 2018 to weigh in on the issue, potentially constraining the proposed action, by emailing [email protected] and referencing specifically DAA-0048-2015-0003.

The DOI’s 183-page proposal, what is called a Departmental Records Schedule (DRS), is in keeping with a set of procedures in place at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) since its founding in 1934. It is a standard practice across the federal government to designate only 1 to 5 percent of files as “permanent,” while a vast portion of files given over are designated as “temporary.” This stems from the logistical and spatial quandaries of storing, as NARA does, 10 billion pages of textual records, 12 million maps, 25 million still photographs, 700,000 motion picture reels and video and sound recordings, and electronic data amounting to 133 terabytes. Thus, while federal documents have been made available to the public, there are—and have always been—limitations to that transparency.

This request, however, raises a few red flags concerning both emerging precedents for archival processing and histories related to the DOI in particular. Regarding archival protocols, “temporary” files—deemed by agency appraisers to be of “little to no research value” that do “not document significant actions of Federal officials”—are subject to increasingly narrow time horizons. Many temporary files have recommended holding periods from 0 to 5 years, while others earned a more robust and typical life span of 40 to 75 years. The former in particular, if entered at all, would be held for arguably too narrow a time frame for researchers to meaningfully engage them.

The DOI request also reveals a hierarchy—however unintentional—that devalues regulatory activities and prioritizes activities spurring economic development. Many files related to endangered species, offshore inspections, wildlife refuges, and drinking water are slated to have fleeting shelf-lives compared to the longer-lasting records featuring economic surveys. Such judgments, to give one example, would impact the way the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill could be analyzed: series that consolidate reports and retrospectives in the aftermath of oil catastrophes will be permanent while those providing real-time accounts of leasing, drilling, and inspection processes preceding it would be available less than 10 years. Such priorities could result in the loss of important data tied to pollution and public health and safety. Exacerbating this tendency is the fact that jurisdiction over records across many bureaus, including the Geological Survey, Fish and Wildlife, and so on, are being brought under the singular authority of DOI, centralizing and streamlining the process by which files can be classed and dumped.

Equally disconcerting, the request promises to obscure from view departmental activities related to Native American land and assets. The request includes files from the landmark class-action lawsuit Cobell, et al. v. Salazar (2009), in which Native Americans charged DOI and the Department of Treasury with mismanaging Indian trust funds, securing a settlement of an astonishing $3.4 billion. As NARA and DOI officials examined these files, they agreed that while they “possess long term legal value, they are not of interest to NARA researchers.” Yet it is also unclear when cross-referencing the memo with the schedule which Cobell files precisely are slated to go.

Ultimately, it is difficult to place this request to destroy files in context—and to determine whether to be alarmed—in part because the process by which files get preserved in the National Archives remains largely shielded from view. A notice is posted in the Federal Register, but the enterprising researcher must request more details through official channels. Historians of the modern United States would be wise to take notice. While it may be obvious that agencies make value judgments determining what records will endure, there are also real stakes in the minutia, especially for histories told from “the bottom up.” This also suggests that historians should be willing to rethink commitments to temporal distance, placing a greater premium on engaging newly issued files covering the more-recent past. They might not be long for this world.

Megan Black is assistant professor of international history at the London School of Economics. Her book The Global Interior: Mineral Frontiers and American Power is available from Harvard University Press.

For further reflections on the current state of modern American environmental history, see MAH’s Forum: Discovering the Environment

On Indigenous peoples’ fundamental place in modern American history, see Margaret D. Jacob’s Seeing Like a Settler Colonial State | Modern American History | Cambridge Core

Modern American History (MAH) Editors: Brooke L. Blower, Boston University, MA , Sarah T. Phillips, Boston University, MA and Christopher Capozzola, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MA


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