Archivists on the Issues: The Neutrality Lie and Archiving in the Now

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Samantha “Sam” Cross, the Assistant Archivist for CallisonRTKL.

If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.


Neutrality is a lie. The sooner archivists agree on that matter, the better the profession will be. It’s not even a good lie, considering the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Howard Zinn’s infamous 1977 speech to the archival community called us out, stating: “The archivist, even more than the historian and the political scientist, tends to be scrupulous about his neutrality, and to see his job as a technical job, free from the nasty world of political interest: a job of collecting, sorting, preserving, making available, the records of society.”

Echoing Zinn, archivists ourselves have revealed the facade of neutrality built into every step of the archiving process. Terry Cook, Helen Samuels, Mark Greene, and Richard J. Cox all consider appraisal “the critical archival act,” the step from which other aspects follow.[1] The selective nature of collecting and retention policies allow archivists to claim that they cannot collect anything outside of the established boundaries. Vernon Harris pointed out that even collection description is a byproduct of cultural and societal biases that construct their own narrative.[2] Last February, in an interview with the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA), Jarrett Drake bluntly stated that “Archives have never been neutral – they are the creation of human beings, who have politics in their nature.”

Claims of neutrality distance archives and archivists from the Now. In his book, Flowers After the Funeral: Reflections on the Post-9/11 Digital Age, Cox anxiously critiqued the purpose of digital and physical collecting in 9/11’s immediate aftermath. From his perspective, the compulsion to archive as a means of remembrance negates the “necessary” distance that the archival act supposedly demand.[3] That distance is where neutrality lives, allegedly, a convenient barrier between archivists and the real world. However, as Randall Jimerson states, “neutrality is the abdication of responsibility.”[4] It deters active archiving and reduces archivists to passive recipients. In reality, archivists have the potential, if not the responsibility, to act and explore other options of collecting and serving their communities.

Easier said than done, but if we want to fight against the perception of neutrality, we have to make a greater case, as a profession, for active, deliberate archiving. A stereotype remains that archivists are basement-dwellers covered in dust, gatekeepers of documents that have long surpassed their use. In truth, archivists have been agents of political disruption and social activism since the beginning of our profession. But whereas archivists of the past were limited by fledgling technology, archivists today can utilize technology to our advantage for the specific purpose of archiving the Now.

While Cox reflected on emerging digital spaces with caution in 2003, archivists in 2017 embrace the tools at our disposal. The ubiquity of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and tumblr has turned the average person into an amateur historian or archivist. We openly document ourselves via tweets, vlogs, and status updates. For those in marginalized communities, the opportunities for visibility – evidence of existence – are enormous.

One of the first online platforms to formulate a response to deliberately archiving digital content was Documenting the Now (DocNow), a suite of tools designed to help researchers mine social media datasets as well as collecting and preserving digital content. The group began in 2014 in response to the Ferguson protests and the Black Lives Matter movement that chronicled events in real time and disseminated information quickly via Twitter and other platforms. DocNow’s mission is to put archiving power into the hands of those within marginalized and activist communities, offering ownership and access that traditional archives cannot provide. That power allows communities to hold others accountable, bypassing distance and neutrality for active and speedy responses, whether from law enforcement or a global community of witnesses.

Archiving the Now has naturally extended into “guerilla archiving events,” intent on swiftly preserving content of all kinds. One example is the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative efforts to preserve public data regarding climate change in danger of disappearing under the current presidential administration.

Another is the Women’s March on Washington Archives Project. As stated by coordinators Danielle Russell and Katrina Vandeven, the Project evolved from a desire to “ensure the preservation of women’s voices and responses to politics and legislation in wake of the intensely controversial 2016 elections.” Though materials aren’t immediately accessible, the project goal was to make available for future research the evidence and first-person accounts. Had archivists not acted, those voices would be lost and efforts to understand marchers’ motives would be at the mercy of speculation.

Even the Internet Archive, a repository of online content, has positioned itself as a tool of accountability through the Wayback Machine and its recent endeavor to collect the 45th president’s online statements, interviews, and sound bites. Like DocNow, the Internet Archive made deliberate efforts to provide evidence and access for the explicit, immediate purpose of use by journalists and citizens. These are efforts of people who understand the luxury of neutrality and the power of inaction. If they chose to remain neutral, the historical record would remain ever incomplete. Keeping up with the current pace of “historical” events is no easy feat, nor will archivists capture everything. But as archivists choose to act, we leave a far more encouraging and greater history in our wake.

Samantha “Sam” Cross is the Assistant Archivist for CallisonRTKL in their Seattle office where she oversees the physical and digital documents and drawings of the global architectural firm. A graduate of Western Washington University, Sam has a Bachelor’s in History and a Master’s in History with an emphasis in Archive and Records Management. In her free time she runs and writes for The Maniacal Geek and hosts That Girl with the Curls podcast where she talks with guests and friends about geek culture, comics, movies, and whatever weird thoughts pop into her head.



[1] Terry Cook, “Documenting Society and Institutions: The Influence of Helen Willa Samuels” in Controlling the Past: Documenting Society and Institutions, Essays In Honor of Helen Willa Samuels, ed. Terry Cook (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2011): 2.

[2] Verne Harris, Archives and Justice: A South African Perspective (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007): 142-143

[3] Richard J. Cox, Flowers After the Funeral: Reflections on the Post-9/11 Digital Age (Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2003): 4-5.

[4] Randall C. Jimerson, Archives Power: Memory, Accountability, and Social Justice (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2009): 294

Step Up to the Plate: Archival mentorship for students and early professionals

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post about early career mentorship comes from Adriana Flores, Assistant Archivist for Acquisitions at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.

As an early professional, my path to becoming an archivist has been filled with mentors. I have no doubt that I would have eventually made it to where I am today on my own, but I arrived much faster with the help and guidance of professional mentors. Although I was extremely lucky to have multiple mentors who prepared me for graduate school and assisted me in my career, not every young archivist is provided that service. Since I made the transition to full-time archivist and now supervise student employees and interns, I have contemplated what makes a good mentor and how to become one myself. I explored archival literature, interviewed people I know throughout the field, and reflected on my own personal experiences in the hopes of starting a greater conversation on how to become a mentor and why mentorship is vital in our field.

Be open and willing to share with others

Archivists first need to be open and willing to share with others. There have been many conversations lately about archivists moving away from a “gate-keeping” mentality, which we can practice not only with our patrons but with our students and early professionals. If archivists are more willing to openly share their experiences with others, within and beyond the profession, then our profession will be much more visible and approachable. In an article entitled “Mentored learning in Special Collections: Undergraduate archival and rare books internships,” the authors elaborate on this point in the context of student internships:

It is imperative for all library professionals, regardless of their responsibilities, to reach out to and mentor individuals who are interested in our profession if it is to remain relevant and vibrant in the future…By creating meaningful internship experiences for our students and volunteers, at the very least we will engender goodwill for our profession and create future ambassadors for our institutions and for our professional role in society. (page 60)

By being open and sharing knowledge with others, archivists can generate mentorship opportunities.

Actively look for mentoring opportunities

Next, I encourage all archivists to actively look for opportunities to become mentors. Although outgoing students will often seek out mentors themselves, it drastically helps when the mentor takes initiative and identifies mentorship opportunities themselves. If you actively search for opportunities to share knowledge, either through a workplace supervision role, at a local LIS program, or at a conference, you will foster potential mentoring relationships.

One of the easiest ways to become a mentor is through supervisory work. When asked about the main difference between a supervisor and mentor, Simmons College’s Professor Donna Webber responded:

I would say a supervisor directs and instructs work and the relationship usually ends when the internship ends. A mentor develops a long-lasting relationship and helps guide a new archivist into the profession. (Webber, personal interview)

If you are hoping to transition from supervisor to mentor, talk with supervisees about life beyond daily responsibilities. Ask them to take part in office meetings, explain the institution’s organizational structure, or discuss archival trends and issues with them. All of these actions will instill confidence in your protégé and will help guide them through their early career.

Don’t let your age or length of career stop you from mentoring

Even if you are a young archivist, I recommend thinking about becoming a mentor, even if you’re also a protégé. It is hard to recognize when you have learned enough to pass on knowledge, but in my experience it happens much quicker than you would expect. One of my past fellow interns and the current Project Archivist at Hoover Institution Archives, Paige Davenport, spoke with me recently about her attitude towards becoming a mentor as an early professional. She shared:

Although I have not participated in an official mentorship program, in my current position I supervise two graduate interns. It is my hope that I can guide them into the field as my internship supervisors did for me, as well as excite them about being part of this field. (Davenport, personal interview)

Like Paige, you do not need to participate in an official mentorship program to become a mentor. Start small if you’re concerned about your qualifications, but never pass up an opportunity to help and advise others due to your age or number of years in the profession.

Support mentorship programs

My last suggestion is to support any and all archival mentorship programs, especially programs that focus on diversity. Mentorship programs provide structure and resources for professionals who are new to mentoring, and they provide an avenue for students and early professionals to seek guidance and support. Mentorship programs are vital to the survival of the profession and programs that emphasize diversity are key to making our profession more reflective of the society we live in. Marginalized groups of people deal with many professional barriers and mentorship may help young archivists from these groups successfully navigate the workplace. If our profession is to grow and prosper, then we need to support the amazing mentorship programs that are available and create more to address the profession’s shifting needs.

Avenues for mentoring

Here are a few resources to explore if you’re interested in becoming a mentor:

  • Become a SAA Mentor. Learn more about the SAA Mentoring program here.
  • If you can attend the annual meeting, become a SAA conference navigator and advise a student or early professional through the experience. Keep an eye open on information regarding this program as SAA 2017 approaches.
  • Support any of the Association of Research Library’s diversity programs, especially their joint program with SAA, the Mosaic Program.
  • See if your regional association has a formalized mentorship program, such as the Northwest Archivist Mentorship Program or the New England Archivist Mentoring Program. If not, and you’re willing, start one up!
  • ALA’s Libraries Transform has a broader range of library and information science mentorship opportunities if none of the above hit the mark.

Please share other suggestions for mentorship opportunities and mentoring in the comments. I hope that this has been thought provoking and helpful; I owe a lot to the mentors in my life and I hope I’m doing my part by becoming a mentor myself and keeping the conversation going.



Adriana Flores is the Assistant Archivist for Acquisitions at Boston University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center. She graduated in 2016 with her MLIS from Simmons College, with a concentration in Archives Management. Currently, Adriana is also a contributor for SNAP’s “Year in the Life” blog series.


Archivists on the Issues: Disability Records Accessibility at the University of Texas at Arlington

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post about the University of Texas at Arlington Libraries’ Texas Disability History Collection comes courtesy of UTA’s Jeff Downing and Betty Shankle.

If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.

July’s oven-like heat drenched Jim Hayes’ shirt with sweat as he pulled cable for Western Electric one last time. On Monday he was going to trade his workman’s clothes for the olive drab of the Army, but today was his 18th birthday and he intended to celebrate.

Once home, he shoehorned eight of his family and friends into his 1963 Ford Fairlane and made the short drive to Fort Worth’s Lake Benbrook.  During the ride Jim’s younger brother, John, bragged that he could swim the length of a nearby cove faster than Jim. As soon as the car pulled up to the lake, John sprang from the car and sprinted into the water. John was far ahead even before Jim got out of the car, but Jim knew a shortcut and he was a fast runner. He tore across the bank to a floating barge and climbed on top of the slippery barrier rail, ready to jump over it and into the lake.

Jim Hayes acquired quadriplegia on July 28, 1967, when he lost his footing and pitched head-first into two feet of water, breaking his neck.

After the accident, Jim enrolled at the University of Texas at Arlington. In 1971, only two majors were taught in wheelchair-accessible buildings—history and accounting. Jim chose history; he hated math.

Jim had been an athletic youth and he worried about the health effects of a sedentary life in a wheelchair. In 1976 he founded the Freewheelers wheelchair basketball team, which later changed its name to Movin’ Mavs. The team brought national attention to UTA when it won four National Wheelchair Basketball Association championships in a row, establishing the school as a leader in adaptive sports. In 1989, Hayes and UTA offered the first full-ride scholarships for adapted sports in the country, forcing other universities to follow suit or lose talent to UTA.

Cover, Sports 'N Spokes, May/June 1992
“15th National Intercollegiate Wheelchair Basketball Tournament: Movin’ Mavs Successfully Defend Title,” Sports ‘N Spokes, May/June 1992. From University of Texas at Arlington. Movin Mavs Records.

When Jim died in 2008, hundreds attended the memorial service on the UTA campus and told stories of how he encouraged them to persevere. Jim’s own view of perseverance was summed up best in an interview he gave to the Dallas Morning News: “You can sit in a dark room watching TV and eating Cheetos for the rest of your life, if that’s what you want. But you don’t have to.”

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates nearly one-fifth of the population has a disability, making this the largest minority group in the country and the only one that anyone can join at any time. The history of disability leaders, activists, and milestones is often marginalized, making it difficult for members of the disability community to discover their own stories of empowerment, development, and activism.

Jim’s story is one of hundreds preserved in UTA Libraries’ Texas Disability History Collection (TDHC) online. The site, launched in 2016, makes once-hidden disability records available to researchers anywhere. The project was a collaboration between two Libraries’ departments, Digital Creation and Special Collections, and the University’s Disability Studies Minor. Funding was provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act.

UTA Libraries believed it was crucial to incorporate best practices for online accessibility into the website, encompassing visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, and neurological disabilities. During the website development process, UTA Libraries followed the standards issued by the Web Accessibility Initiative.

Special Collections partners were tasked with selecting 1,500 documents and photographs for the site from existing archived collections. Locating records not accessed regularly proved challenging.  A priority was to determine keywords to use for searching finding aids, since Special Collections houses few collections entirely comprised of disability records. For example, we encountered difficulty finding polio records; it took a while to learn that, decades ago, polio was often called infantile paralysis. After re-thinking our search terminology, we located many more disability manuscript and photograph records than we thought possible.

The Digital Creation department staff were responsible for project management, scanning materials, and building the website using Drupal. The chair of the Disability Studies Minor and her assistant were tasked with compiling a group of 40 oral histories, as well as advising on the site’s taxonomy.

Building for the Future

The foundational work on TDHC described above feeds into coming work by the Disability History/Archives Consortium in building a U.S.-wide portal for disability history collections. UTA researchers are already using the TDHC as a primary research tool. As a result of the project, UTA Libraries has developed expertise around designing maximally accessible websites and collecting disability-related materials. Growth of the collection and website is assured with $10,000 in additional support from UTA’s College of Liberal Arts. Connections are being made with State of Texas officials responsible for supporting disability efforts. In 2017-2018, an inventory to identify other disability-related collections in Texas will happen to inform planning of future activities.

Because of the project, the UTA Libraries has added disability records to its collection scope and is the “only repository in the state focused on collecting Texas disability history.” There remain many stories to tell.


Jeff Downing, Digital Projects Librarian, UT Arlington Libraries. Jeff has been a Digital Projects Librarian at UTA Libraries for four years. During his 35 year career, Jeff has worked for a number of libraries and library-related organizations, including Amigos Library Services, the Superconducting Super Collider Laboratory Library and of course UT Arlington.

Betty Shankle is the University and Labor Collections Archivist at the University of Texas at Arlington Special Collections. Betty has worked in the Archives field since 2004 and served on local, state and regional professional committees, presented at local and regional conferences, published articles, and curated several archival exhibits.

Library Advocacy or Climbing Mount Everest: Which Would You Choose?

Today’s post comes courtesy of Heidi Bamford, Outreach and Member Services Coordinator for the Western New York Library Resources Council (WNYLRC). As archivists and archives-funding organizations continue to advocate for our institutions, WNYLRC’s work provides examples of how to structure outreach and engage with local and state government leaders.

If you are in the library world, you know how hard it is to get people to think of your work and your space as anything more than a quiet place to read a good book. And you always hear the phrase, “Everyone loves their library” to the point you want to throw down the gauntlet and ask, “Do you REALLY?!” Library advocacy can be a difficult and frustrating activity, but like the glaciers, things will eventually begin to move and people will take notice!

The Western New York Library Resources Council (WNYLRC) began a concerted library advocacy campaign about three years ago and have been fine tuning and changing it up since that time. The first year began with office visits to New York State Senate and Assembly members representing people, and libraries, in upstate New York’s six counties. The goal during our first year was to establish a connection with each of the district offices we visited – getting to know both the representative and his or her staff – and to assess who were our best potential allies and active supporters. We sent them a quarterly e-newsletter of library achievements in their districts to keep us on the radar after the budget was passed that year.

NY Assemblyman Andy Goodell, 150th district, far back left at the cabinet corner, with staff, trustees and friends of the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System and the Southern Tier Library System libraries

From the start, the intention was to make our advocacy efforts an educational experience for the legislators. We assumed their knowledge of what libraries are and who we serve was limited – which was the case with most representatives. In the second year, we worked to help them realize that libraries are everywhere. Their districts encompassed not just public libraries but school, academic, hospital, corporate, museum, historical society, and art gallery libraries! During the second year, we gave each representative a framed historic image from his or her district that had been digitized and put up on New York Heritage – a WNYLRC program services for members. We also made note of each member’s committees and their biographical information. What schools did they attend? Maybe one of our academic libraries. What were their special interests or organizations? Maybe one of our special libraries… and so on.

This year, we held district meetings at various public, school, academic and special libraries across the region, instead of going to district offices as in previous years. Library programs and services were highlighted, demonstrating our support of community lifelong education, regional economic development and quality of life! We touched on some “negative” aspects of our situation: the dire need for basic construction and renovation of many library buildings; the lack of staff to meet growing demands for library programs and services; the high cost of maintaining technology and electronic resources. But our main focus was that libraries are vibrant and necessary elements in the lives of practically everyone living in New York State! This year, we shifted the emphasis from “I love my library” to “I NEED my library.”

NY State assemblyman Ray Walter, 146th district, left, with Amherst Libraries’director Roseanne Butler-Smith,WNYLRC Executive Director Sheryl Knab, and Nioga Library System director Tom Bindeman

Recently, we were able to meet with the Governor’s regional representative to bring our message to the executive branch. We have consistently faced our stiffest resistance to budget growth at the state level. We had no idea of the existence of this office and so were pleased to have the opportunity to bring our message to the Governor. We noticed that the office has less awareness of libraries than legislative offices, simply because it is removed from the local everyday interactions with entities like libraries! So, reaching out to make these important connections and to inform policy makers of the work we do and the impact we have on people is critical to our success – no other way around it! Our efforts are not just about the resource allocators’ awareness of what librarians’ work, but of telling them an attention-getting story of how we do it. So go on, get out there and start those glaciers moving!

Heidi Bamford has been with the Western New York Library Resources Council (WNYLRC) since 1990, first as the Regional Archivist for the Documentary Heritage Program and more recently as WNYLRC’s Outreach and Member Services Coordinator. Before that she worked at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. after graduating with an MA from the University at Buffalo. She has two daughters who she is very proud of and who are also library supporters, both in terms of using them and often owing fines for overdue materials!

Proposed Changes to Mexican Law Threaten Records Access and Use

This post provides information about the work that SAA’s Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Section has been doing regarding proposed changes to a Mexican records law. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog, please email

Last year, a records law was proposed in Mexico that, although it was introduced in an attempt to improve recordkeeping transparency, is not in keeping with democratic practices nor does it provide appropriate accountability. As such, archivists, historians, scholars, and other interested parties have raised concerns that these changes to the current system will likely limit access to records and not improve the transfer of records. Nearly 4300 people signed a letter in late November presenting their concerns to legislators and the National Archive’s director.

Thanks to the work of the Latin American and Caribbean Cultural Heritage Section, particularly former co-chair Margarita Vargas-Betancourt and current co-chairs George Apodaca and Ana Rodriguez, archivists without Spanish language skills can read up on the issue on LACCHA’s microsite and blog. The posts are brief but illuminating and provide links to the activism conducted by concerned parties.

Mexican achivist Enrique Chmelnik, president of the Association of Mexican Private Archives and Libraries and director of the Center for Documentation and Jewish Research in Mexico, spoke at LACCHA’s annual meeting about this legislative issue. Chmelnik also presented at the Diversity Forum about the history of Mexican Jews and the work of the Center of Documentation and Research of the Jewish Communities in Mexico.

What Can Archivists Do about Concerns Regarding Federal Climate and Environmental Data?

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

This post is by Eira Tansey, University of Cincinnati and a leader in the Project Archivists Responding to Climate Change (ProjectARCC).

Shortly after the US election results, many who rely on federal climate and environmental data became very concerned about the continuing public availability of this data in the new administration. I am among this group myself, as my research partners from Penn State and I use data sets from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to map climate change risks to American archival repositories. In the past few weeks, institutions such as the University of Toronto and the Penn Environmental Humanities Lab began to organize hackathons in order to seed the End of Term Web Archive project with climate and environmental webpages, and determine ways to effectively copy large data sets. The issue gained steam over the weekend when climate journalist and meteorologist Eric Holthaus began tweeting about it, and has gained major news coverage with stories in the Washington Post and Vice.

As a leader within ProjectARCC (Archivists Responding to Climate Change), I had reached out to individuals at Toronto and Penn to get more information about their projects as soon as I heard about them, including the role of librarians and archivists in their efforts. Representatives from the University of Toronto and Penn joined last night’s monthly ProjectARCC conference call to update us on their efforts.

Things are moving very swiftly on all fronts, so additional posts will be forthcoming as information and efforts are updated.

What is already in place?

Fellows from the Penn Environmental Humanities Lab began raising the issue of vulnerable environmental data with a hackathon earlier this month. The Lab is now quickly organizing on many of the issues associated with downloading and distributing the work of copying the many data sets scientists rely on. You can read their initial vision here, their preliminary take on how not all data sets may be equally vulnerable, and yesterday’s update regarding their taking over the initial crowdsourced spreadsheet that Eric Holthaus started, as well as their collaborative work with the University of Toronto.

The University of Toronto is hosting a “guerrilla archiving” event on December 17. This event will focus on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) page URLs that will be seeded for the End of Term project.

What is next?

The folks at Penn and Toronto have received a massive outpouring of interest. Which is great! It also means that they need time to organize their efforts and evaluate offers of help, storage space, etc., most effectively. You can visit Penn’s #DataRefuge website, which went live December 13, to learn more about efforts as they evolve.

Beyond the work that is coming out of the Toronto event on December 17, Toronto and Penn are planning to develop a toolkit so other institutions can host hackathons.

The Penn folks are currently setting up contacts with many organizations’ representatives, including the Society of American Archivists.

How can you help?

The Penn #DataRefuge project now has a “I’d like to help” form. You can submit your response hereTo nominate .gov pages for the End of Term Web Archive, you can use the End of Term Nomination Tool.

Why are people so worried about this to begin with?

Several departments and agencies within the federal government, including EPA, NOAA, Department of Interior, Department of Energy, and National Aeronautic and Space Administration (to name but a few), create myriad and massive data sets related to monitoring pollution of air and water, weather patterns, energy usage, and tracking indicators associated with climate change (ocean temperature and acidification, sea level modeling, and global temperature records).  

The incoming Trump administration is signalling that it will likely be hostile to the established consensus science on climate change, as well as existing pollution regulations. The President Elect has denied global warming’s reality and has selected a series of people that have a legislative or business record of undermining environmental regulation and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many proposed appointees have extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry, including the EPA nominee (Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma Attorney General) and the Secretary of State nominee (Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO). Multiple meta-surveys of climate science papers have established that climate change is real and primarily driven by human activities. Recent publication on this extensively documented issue includes one published in April 2016, showing that between 90-100% of climate scientists themselves are in consensus on the causes of global warming. 18 of America’s prominent scientific organizations are in agreement on the science showing that climate change is primarily driven by human activities.

Researchers are worried that funding will be cut from existing federal environmental and climate monitoring and research efforts, but also about continued access to currently public data sets. It remains to be seen whether recent Open Government initiatives that increased public access to federal data will receive the same level of support in the next administration. If data sets are removed from public access, this could mean that researchers would be required to file FOIA requests for access. During the Bush administration, with similarly extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry, scientists documented dozens of instances of scientific advice manipulation, restrictions on federal scientists’ work, and cutbacks on public access to environmental information (the most famous case is probably the proposed closure of EPA libraries). Some Canadians are alarmed by what could happen in the United States, given how the Harper administration reduced public access to federal environmental data there.

For now, researchers are in wait-and-see mode, but most are erring on the side of being overly cautious—hence why so many have mobilized to copy currently available data as fast as possible.

For questions about this work’s current status, please feel free to contact

Police-Worn Body Camera Footage: A Public Record? Part 2

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

This post, written by Rachel Mattson, is part two in a two-part series regarding the debate regarding police body-camera footage’s classification as a public record. Part 1 is available here.

BWCs: The Wild West of Records Requests
Requestors seeking access to police-worn body camera footage nationwide have encountered a diversity of other obstacles. Indeed, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) recently called police body cam footage “the Wild West of open records requests,” noting that obtaining access to these records “is proving to be an uncertain and challenging endeavor.”[1] One justification that agencies often use for the withholding of footage is its sensitive nature. BWC footage raises serious concerns about privacy, security, and confidentiality. But as RCFP’s Adam Marshall notes—and as video archivists who work with human rights documentation have long known—there exists a wide range of tech and policy strategies that can make video available to the public while protecting individual privacy and security.[2]

Possibly the greatest threat to the public’s ability to access BWC going forward may be the efforts currently underway in many states to pass legislation that would exempt BWC footage from public records laws. In July 2016, North Carolina made national news when governor Pat McCrory signed a bill declaring that “body camera and dash camera footage are not public record[s].” Similar bills are currently being considered in Michigan, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Louisiana, and California, among other states. In Utah, one lawmaker has even proposed a bill that would officially classify all footage as “a private government record” if it depicts any “images of nudity, death, or gruesome events.” Who determines if an image is gruesome? “Something’s gruesome if police say it is.”[3]

In the view of many observers, access to police BWC footage, especially of fatal police shootings, is “crucial” to both “the public’s ability to hold police responsible for their conduct” and officers’ ability to exonerate themselves when wrongly accused of misconduct.[4] And the potential privacy and security concerns that these records raise remain separate from the question of whether these videos should be officially classified as public records. Indeed, many confidential and sensitive records, including federal intelligence records, are classified as public records under law. Body camera footage is not more sensitive than these kinds of records, and should not treated as such.[5]

It may be the case, as several activist groups have claimed, that equipping the police with cameras is the wrong strategy for addressing the larger problems of police accountability and racial justice. A broad base of community and activist groups have critiqued the practice of equipping police with BWCs. For instance, We Charge Genocide, a Chicago-based group working toward restorative justice solutions for police misconduct, suggests that “when police control the cameras, those cameras are at the service of police violence.” In fact, they observe that one body camera manufacturer “actually uses the slogan ‘Made by Cops for Cops. Prove Your Truth.’” The recent “Vision for Black Lives” Statement put forth by the Movement for Black Lives likewise includes a demand to “End the Use of Technologies that Criminalize and Target Our Communities (Including IMSI Catchers, Drones, Body Cameras, and Predictive Policing Software).”[6]

Nonetheless, the calls for and deployment of police-worn body cameras increase every day. As more local policing agencies equip officers with BWCs, we have a responsibility to engage with challenges that these government-generated records present. Indeed, as professional archivists and records managers, some of us may soon manage BWC footage as part of our official responsibilities. As we have learned recently, making this video a public record will not in-and-of-itself put an end to police murder of black and brown people. In order for that to occur, access to documentation will have to be coupled with mechanisms that make it possible to hold public servants accountable for their actions. But for BWC footage to be used in the pursuit of accountability and justice, it has to be a public record first. [7]

SAA and BWCs
This fall, I will work to start a conversation about BWCs among SAA members and hope to put forth proposal to the Society of American Archivists’ Committee on Public Policy (COPP) that SAA take a public stand supporting policies that, at a minimum, ensure that police BWC footage be officially classified as a public record.[8] I hope you’ll support—or join!—this conversation and effort. On its main webpage, COPP heralds the power of archival records to “ensure the protection of citizens’ rights, the accountability of organizations and governments, and the accessibility of historical information,” noting that the SAA “believes that archivists must take an active role in advocating for the public policies and resources necessary to ensure that these records are preserved and made accessible.” As BWCs gain widespread usage by U.S. police departments, the footage they generate will become an ever-more pervasive part of the criminal justice system. Ensuring that videos remain public records is something that, as an archival organization committed to “the public’s right to equal and equitable access to government information found in archives,” we should support wholeheartedly.[9]

Rachel Mattson is a Brooklyn-based historian and archivist. She currently works as the Manager of Special Projects in the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and is a core member of the XFR Collective. She previously volunteered for I-Witness Video, a group that used citizen video and archival strategies to oppose police misconduct. Mattson holds a PhD in U.S. History from NYU and an MLIS from UIUC. Her writing has appeared in publications including Radical History Reviewthe Scholar and the FeministMovement Research Performance Journal, and in books published by Routledge, Washington Square, and Thread Makes Blanket Press.

[1] Adam Marshall, “Police Bodycam Videos: The Wild West of Open Records Requests,”
[2] Marshall, “Police Bodycam Videos: The Wild West of Open Records Requests.”
[3] “North Carolina Keeps Public From Seeing Police Camera Video,” Winston Salem Journal, July 11, 2016; Sophia Murguia, “More States Set Privacy Restrictions on Bodycam Video,”; “Police Bodycam Footage is a Vital Public Record; Don’t Restrict It,” the Utah Standard-Examiner, February 12, 2016.
[4]“Police Bodycam Footage is a Vital Public Record; Don’t Restrict It,” Standard-Examiner.
[5] I thank Eileen Clancy for reminding me of this fact. For more on the parameters of the federal records laws, see e.g. Douglas Cox, “Burn After Viewing: The CIA’s Destruction of the Abu Zubaydah Tapes and the Law of Federal Records,” Journal of National Security Law and Policy, Vol. 5, 2011, pp. 131-177.
[6] We Charge Genocide, “Statement on Cops and Cameras,”; The Movement for Black Lives, “A Vision for Black Lives, Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice,” See also Caruso, Burns, and Converse, “Slow Motion Increases Perceived Intent,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (33) May 2016,; and Williams et al., “Police Body Cameras: What Do You See?” New York Times, April 1, 2016.
[7] For a critical analysis of the complexity of the issues at hand and the kind of work that needs to be done to address them, see Kimberle Crenshaw and Andrea Ritchie’s indispensible report, “Say Her Name: Resisting Police Brutality Against Black Women,” African American Policy Forum, 2015.
[8] The proposal is currently in development. If you wish to contribute or add your name to the list of supporters, please email keepbwcfpublic [at] gmail [dot] com.
[9] SAA Public Policy Agenda,; Committee on Public Policy webpage,

Police-Worn Body Camera Footage: A Public Record? Part 1

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

This post, written by Rachel Mattson, is part one in a two-part series regarding the debate regarding police body-camera footage’s classification as a public record. Part 2 is now available here.

The murder of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014 was, we now know, a turning point in the struggle for racial justice and police accountability in the U.S. Protests in the shooting’s aftermath garnered international news attention and extended the work of racial justice activists under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. The horror of Brown’s death and the power of the highly visible oppositional efforts in its aftermath put conversations about police procedure and accountability front and center nationally.

One of the chief reforms proposed in the wake of these events was implementation of police-worn body cameras. After Brown’s murder, officers in Ferguson began routinely using these devices, and in December 2014, President Obama officially requested $75 million in federal funds to support the distribution of 50,000 body cameras to police departments nationwide. Shortly thereafter, The Atlantic called the adoption of body-worn cameras by municipal police departments “may[be] the most significant reform to follow the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.” The trend has continued: in March 2016, New York-based legal researcher Ian Head noted that “cameras are the biggest trend in police departments across the country.”[1]

But even as calls for use of police-worn body cameras grew, critics began to sound notes of caution. Privacy experts voiced concerns that “equipping police with such devices” might simply extend the government’s surveillance capacity: the Los Angeles Times reported that someday “such cameras…may be used with facial-recognition technology the way many departments already use license-plate scanners.” Others noted that ample evidence suggested that video documentation was not enough to ensure accountability or justice. New York Times Magazine contributor Jenna Wortham tweeted, “Eric Garner’s death WAS captured on video. We all saw it. Body cameras for cops won’t solve this problem. It’s bigger than technology.”[2] She refers to the Staten Island man who was choked to death by an NYPD officer in July 2014. A grand jury failed to indict the officer responsible.

Body-worn cameras (BWCs for short) began raising a range of legal and archival questions that municipalities and police departments were woefully underprepared to address. Should footage generated by police-worn body cameras be classified as a public record? When and how should access be granted to family members, journalists, lawyers, activists, researchers, and other interested parties? How can officials protect the privacy of individuals whose lives, and homes, are caught on video? What strategies should be used to ensure the integrity of the digital files generated by BWCs? What kinds of retention policies should determine the disposition of the deluge of new, ever-increasing video records? In the rush to put cameras on bodies, these questions had been largely overlooked: a federal survey of 63 law enforcement agencies using body cameras found that as of mid-2014, nearly a third had no written policy to govern their use.[3] This has improved some in the intervening years: according to a study by The Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, as of August 2016, 42 of major city police departments 68 (roughly 62%) have BWC policies in place.[4]

But a raft of issues remain, even when agencies have established policies. For instance, studies have found that most of the existing BWC policies are vague or arbitrary on questions related to the preservation of and public access to video captured by police BWCs.[5] Many cities permit or mandate the destruction of footage between 30 days and six months after filming, unless the video depicts “excessive use of force, detention, or civilian complaints” or has “evidentiary, exculpatory, or training value.” Just who makes this determination—and on what basis—remains unclear. Moreover, the majority of BWC policies make it, in researcher Ian Head’s words, “extremely difficult for anyone but the local prosecutor’s office to access the recordings, even though the cameras are being touted by the Department of Justice as a way for police to ‘demonstrate transparency to their communities.’”[6]

Journalists, government sunshine advocates, and racial justice activists have all sounded the alarm about the inadequacy, arbitrariness, and lack of standards governing BWC policies nationwide.[7] But the voice of one important group has largely been missing from these debates: archivists. And the truth is that a great many of the central challenges of BWC policies and practices are core archival topics. At issue here are questions about digital preservation workflows, access policies, privacy concerns, and records retention schedules—questions that professional archivists and records managers address on a daily basis. Our experience with these questions and our longstanding efforts to resolve them in ethical, effective ways, makes our perspectives essential to ongoing conversations about the development of policies and practices related to BWCs.

Archivists and BWCs
Some efforts are now being made to involve archivists, and archival perspectives, in these conversations. For instance, in August 2016, the UCLA Department of Information Studies hosted a three-day forum called “On the Record, All the Time: Setting an Agenda for Audiovisual Evidence Management.” Funded by an IMLS grant and spearheaded by moving image archives scholar and educator Snowden Becker, the convening was designed to create an “action plan for curricula and educational programs that will better prepare information professionals to manage” materials “generated by the widespread use of surveillance cameras, smartphones, and bodycam.”[8]

But in consideration of how widespread the use of BWCs has become—and the enormous records management questions they pose—one archival initiative is hardly enough. As trained professionals, we have a responsibility to add our multiple voices to the conversation.

One node of this conversation that stands to benefit from the thoughtful archivist’s perspective is the access node. Journalists, lawyers, and watchdog groups have argued that BWC footage falls squarely into the category of public records.[9] Although public records laws vary from locality to locality, nearly every state’s definition of a public record includes “information stored in a variety of media” including video produced by government agencies. For instance, the Florida state law defines as public records any material (“regardless of the physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission”) that is “made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency.” As material created in connection with the transaction of official business of police, BWC footage is clearly a public record in Florida. As such, the law mandates that the agency responsible for that record must make it available “for personal inspection and copying by any person.” And yet, many requestors have had trouble gaining access to police BWC footage in Florida. In early 2015, for instance, officials in Sarasota charged one records requestor $18,000 for fees associated with processing 84 hours of video—an action that had the effect of forcing the requestor to retract his application to view the materials.[10]

Rachel Mattson is a Brooklyn-based historian and archivist. She currently works as the Manager of Special Projects in the Archives of La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club and is a core member of the XFR Collective. She previously volunteered for I-Witness Video, a group that used citizen video and archival strategies to oppose police misconduct. Mattson holds a PhD in U.S. History from NYU and an MLIS from UIUC. Her writing has appeared in publications including Radical History Reviewthe Scholar and the FeministMovement Research Performance Journal, and in books published by Routledge, Washington Square, and Thread Makes Blanket Press.

[1] “Ferguson Cops Get Body Cameras After Michael Brown’s Shooting,” NBC News Online, September 1, 2014; Uri Friedman, “Do Police Body Cameras Actually Work?” The Atlantic, December 3, 2014; Ian Head, “Rush to Body Cameras Does Little to Create Police Accountability,” The Daily Outrage: The CCR Blog, March 9, 2016.
[2] Matt Pearce, “Growing Use of Police Body Cameras Raises Privacy Concerns,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 27, 2014. Wortham, who tweets at @jennydeluxe, is quoted in the LA Times article. See also, e.g., Janaé Bonsu, “The Movement for Black Lives Will not be Criminalized,” Institute for Policy Studies, July 18, 2016,
[3] Cited in Pearce, “Growing Use of Police Body Cameras Raises Privacy Concerns.” The full report can be downloaded from
[4] The Leadership Council on Human Rights and Upturn, Police Body Worn Cameras: A Policy Scorecard (2016),
[5] Campaign Zero, “Police Use of Force Review,”
[6] Police Body Worn Cameras: A Policy Scorecard (2016); Campaign Zero, “Police Use of Force Review”; Head, “Rush to Body Cameras Does Little to Create Police Accountability.”
[7]See, for instance, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Civil Rights’ May 2015 press release, “Privacy, and Media Rights Groups Release Principles for Law Enforcement Body Worn Cameras.”
[8] “On the Record, All the Time,”; Project Proposal: “On the Record, All the Time,” Attendees live-tweeted some parts of this convening using the hashtag #OTRATT.
[9] For instance, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) recently submitted an amicus brief in an Ohio case related to the shooting of Samuel DuBose by a police officer, in which it “argues that bodycam videos are not confidential law enforcement records under Ohio Public Records Act and accordingly must be released upon request.” To read the brief, visit
[10] The 2016 Florida Statutes:; James L. Rosica, “Police Body Cameras Could Conflict with Florida Public Records Law,” Tampa Bay Times, March 15, 2015. Although charging fees do not technically violate the public records laws, they do make it virtually impossible for most journalists or watchdog organizations to access these records. The practice of charging excessive fees for processing public records requests is an alarmingly common one. It gained new visibility when, in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s murder, several newspapers were charged “exorbitant fees” by officials in Ferguson to news organizations requesting documents. At one point, local agencies in Ferguson billed the Associated Press for 8 hours of work at $135 per hour—“merely to retrieve a handful of email accounts since the shooting.” Andy Cush, “Ferguson is Gouging Journalists in Freedom of Information Requests,” Gawker, September 29, 2014. In an attempt to mitigate this challenge, the Obama administration recently included, in an updated FOIA law, a provision that would prohibit agencies from charging processing fees if they fail to respond in 30 days, Jason Leopold, “Obama Just Made it Much Easier for the Public to Access Public Records,” Vice News June 30, 2016.


Archivists, Donors, and the Grieving Process

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Sara Harrington about a survey she conducted about archivists and the grieving process. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

My first job after completing my undergraduate education was in a local vintage shop.  As a secondhand store, we acquired our merchandise from a variety of sources, including members of the public seeking to sell or donate items left behind by someone who has passed away.  In addition to our regular business, we also conducted estate sales or clearings for clients who have inherited the household of a recently lost loved one.  Although the lion’s share of the interactions with these clients was left to my manager, I was in a position to observe the process from initiation to completion.  As such, I witnessed countless moments of grief exposed:  moments of longing and yearning, moments of nostalgia and reminiscence, moments of indecision and confusion.  These moments, these glimpses into the heart of mourning, are inevitable when you work in an industry that centers on the remnants of living.

When the opportunity arose to conduct my own research project as part of my graduate education in archives, a study on donors and the grieving process seemed a perfect fit.  It allowed me to explore the future through the lens of the past–I could use my experiences with grieving clients and my education in psychology to examine an interesting topic that could prove to be highly significant to my new career path as an archivist.  My aim was to discover the ways in which the grieving process can complicate the archivist-donor relationship, and the methods or training employed by archivists to navigate this relationship.

During my review of the existing literature, I was surprised to find that very little attention has been given to this topic.  A precious few studies peripherally touched on the subject but, other than a single master’s thesis (Garbett-Styger, 2014), no empirical research had been conducted related to grieving donors in an archival setting.  With so little previous work to serve as a foundation for my own research, it seemed best to keep my study simple and fairly broad in scope.

A Quick Word on Grief

Early psychological models conceptualized grief as an arduous but predictable process consisting of several distinct phases that were played out over a delineated period of time.  These models did not allow room for outliers; failure to work through grief in prescribed order and within the allotted timeframe was considered problematic, if not pathological.  Modern grief science, however, demonstrates that the grieving process is more complex and less predictable than originally theorized.  Still, some patterns can be identified.  First, grieving is an iterative and fluctuating process; the bereaved often experience various emotions – both positive and negative – in waves.  Second, symptoms of grief – also known as grief reactions – generally fall into one of four broad categories: emotional, which may include anger, anxiety, or guilt; physical, which may include loss of appetite or sleep disturbances; cognitive, which may include indecisiveness or difficulty focusing; and behavioral, which may include increased irritability or aggression (Lamb, 1988; Cancer.Net, 2015; MedlinePlus, 2016).  These four categories served as a framework for both the construction and analysis of my survey.


To explore this under-served topic, I created an online survey using Qualtrics Insight Platform software.  This short, anonymous survey consisted of both closed and open-ended questions and was distributed via professional listservs, including SAA’s Archives and Archivists (A&A) List.  The target population for this survey was archivists and special collections librarians in an acquisitions or collections role in the United States.  The survey, though relatively short, provided a wealth of information.  It would be nearly impossible to adequately describe the full results without exceeding the word limit for this post.  As such, I’ll simply summarize those patterns that have the most potential significance to current or potential archivists.


Working with bereaved donors is a common experience for many professional archivists.  Of the 48 archivists surveyed for this study, only 3 (approximately 6%) had never worked with a bereaved donor before.  Despite the frequency of interactions with grieving donors, it is clearly not prioritized in the training and education of archivists:

  • 32%  reported that they had no previous training or education that aided them in their work with bereaved donors
  • 16% reported having taken coursework related to donor relations as part of a broader LIS course, but none had taken a course dedicated solely to donor relations.
  • 26% relied on onsite training or mentorship to prepare them for such work, while 21% relied on personal experiences with the grieving process.

According to grief experts, grief reactions generally fall into 1 of 4 categories: behavioral, cognitive, emotional, and physical.

  • Crying, restlessness, and verbal reminiscing were the most commonly reported behavioral reactions: 64% reported encountering “a little” crying, 43% reported “a little” restlessness, and 44% reported “a lot” of reminiscing.
  • Cognitive issues such as indecisiveness and hesitancy to let go of physical mementos were also frequently reported, with 34% encountering “a moderate amount” of indecisiveness, and  49% encountering “a moderate amount” of hesitancy.
  • Emotional and physical reactions were reported less often, probably due to being less noticeable to the archivists; however, 95% of archivists reported witnessing at least “a little” signs of sadness in bereaved donors, while 43% have noticed signs of fatigue in grieving donors.
  • Qualitative data collected suggests that as high as 27% of donors also demonstrate positive reactions during the donation process; respondents reported that donors often find a sense of relief or closure in the act of memorializing the deceased through their donation.

The archivists surveyed employed a variety of methods to aid in their work with grieving donors:

  • The methods most commonly employed by archivists in their work with grieving donors are empathetic listening (100%), reassuring the donor of the collection’s value to the institution (97%), and reassuring them that the collection will be well-cared for (97%).
  • Follow-ups about the collection (69%) and handwritten notes or other tokens of appreciation (67%) were also commonly reported.
  • Physical touch (36%) and allowing the donor to take an active role in crafting the future of the collection (31%) were reported less often.

Suggestions from those surveyed for better preparing future archivists for working with bereaved donors also varied:

  • Most of the archivists surveyed thought that seminars/workshops in donor relations (82%) or lectures/conference materials on the subject (62%) would be most helpful.
  • Those surveyed considered LIS coursework in donor relations (44%) and professional literature on the topic (44%) to be of equal helpfulness.
  • Qualitative data collected in the survey reflected that the archivists considered patience and empathy to be key factors in working with grieving donors.

Regardless of the amount of time that has passed since a donor’s loss, donating to a repository can arouse a variety of grief responses.  As one respondent stated, the grieving process “can last a few months, or years, or a long lifetime.”  At least one respondent encountered significant grief reactions in a donor over 40 years after their loss.  The nature of archival work makes working with bereaved donors – and thus, encountering such grief reactions – a common occurrence.  With this in mind, it seems clear that further research on this topic is very much needed in order to better prepare inexperienced archivists for the challenge of working with the bereaved in a competent, compassionate, and professional manner.


Cancer.Net. (2015). Understanding grief and loss. Retrieved from  Last accessed: 8/1/2016.

Garbett-Styger, M. (2014). Death, dying, and archives: Learning to work with grieving and dying donors (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from  Last accessed: 8/1/2016.

Lamb, D. H. (1988). Loss and grief: Psychotherapy strategies and interventions. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training25(4), 561-569. doi:10.1037/h0085382

MedlinePlus. (2016). Bereavement. Retrieved from  Last accessed: 8/1/2016.

Sara Harrington is an MLIS student at Louisiana State University.  She will obtain her master’s degree with a specialization in cultural heritage resource management in December 2016.  She is interested in the historical artifacts of popular culture, and the human side of archives. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.  

The Clinton Emails and Proper Digital Records Storage

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Below is a post from Hilary Barlow about the the Clinton email scandal and government digital record storage. If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Roundtable.

As Hillary Clinton is now the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, it’s worth remembering that her issues with email are part of the federal government’s checkered history with proper digital record storage. As Secretary of State, Clinton was not the first federal official to hide emails in a private server. In 2007, it came to light the Bush Administration officials did the same thing, with Karl Rove et al holding the bag. But Hillary Clinton’s emails shouldn’t just be a Republican talking point. Even if she isn’t the first, her blatant abuse of proper records practices, along with the inability or disinclination of others to sanction her actions, are a discouraging portent for the future of digital recordkeeping in the highest echelons of American government.

On July 5, FBI Director James Comey revealed that, while he found that Clinton had sent and received confidential information via her private email server, he was not recommending that she be indicted by the Department of Justice. On July 12, Attorney General Loretta Lynch backed Comey’s recommendation. Details about Clinton’s record-keeping practices were already troubling, more specifics have come to light.

It first became apparent that Clinton was using a private email account in March 2013, when a hacker accessed the email of her aide Sidney Blumenthal. The existence of the account received wider attention in the summer of 2014 when the House Select Committee on Benghazi realized that there were no official emails belonging to Clinton in State Department records. Since then, the emails have been a target for anti-Clinton Republicans and an election talking point.

Clinton turned over around 30,000 emails to the State Department in December 2014. Comey revealed on July 5 that many e-mails were lost in transfers from old to new servers, and that his team uncovered e-mails outside of the surrendered 30,000 that had either been lost in those transfers or deleted. Clinton has claimed the deleted emails were personal, which may be true, but since they were taken out of official recordkeeping channels completely history will never know for certain. The provenance of Clinton’s State Department emails is complicated to say the least and permanently so.

In March of 2015, the SAA issued a statement expressing concern at the use of non-governmental e-mails by government officials in general and Clinton in particular. The Council noted 2014 amendments to the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act “to prohibit the use of private email accounts by government officials unless they copy or forward any such emails into their government account within 20 days.”

Though the amendments were finalized after Clinton had completed her term as Secretary of State, there have been questions about whether Clinton violated the Act as it stood during her term, as well as the State Department Foreign Affairs Manual. Comey stated during a House Oversight Committee hearing that he believed Clinton had violated the Federal Records Act, at least “in some respects.” Attorney General Loretta Lynch went a step further than Comey, stating that the Federal Records Act was not under the purview of the investigation.

As President, Clinton would be expected to abide by the 2014 amendments to the Presidential Records Act. Similar to the Federal Records Act amendments, in which government officials are expected to use an official email and forward emails to official channels within 20 days if a personal account is used, the Presidential Records Act puts the burden of compliance is specifically on the President and Vice-President.

Comey noted in his statement to the press on July 5 that while Clinton would not be prosecuted, other individuals could face “security or administrative sanctions” in similar circumstances. The heavy implication is that low-level staff are likely to face consequences that higher-level officials can avoid. This sets a troubling precedent, not only for Clinton’s likely presidential administration, but for digital recordkeeping in the federal government overall. Alongside the Bush Administration email scandal in 2007, there is a bipartisan pattern of misplaced emails. Adding the complacency of both Comey and Lynch creates an overall picture of disregard for these issues.

What can we expect from Hillary Clinton’s administration and future administrations with regard to record-keeping and overall transparency? And no, I don’t think Donald Trump would be better on any of these issues. I shudder to even think of the information practices under his administration, but regardless of who is in the White House this case will set an important precedent. Ultimately, effective documentation thrives in an environment of clear standards, consistent application and a culture of accountability. This is a systemic issue bigger than Hillary Clinton, though her role as a major presidential contender and former Secretary of State should not be underestimated. The weak responses from Comey and Lynch are alarming because of the implications for the culture of accountability in the federal government surrounding these issues, and the pattern they set for future records practices.

One would hope that the 2014 amendments to the Federal Records Act and President Records Act will spur Clinton and others to properly store records for posterity. Since Hillary Clinton has been dogged by the email issue throughout her campaign, perhaps her administration will be more attentive to digital records to avoid future scandal. Personally, I will be very interested in seeing how a Hillary Clinton administration will handle records.

Hilary Barlow earned her Master of Information degree in 2015 from the University of Toronto. She currently works as a Preservation & Digitization Technician at Penn State University.