The late Sen. Walter George (D-Ga.) lived a full life.
Mercer University’s law school bears his name, and he was a member of the Georgia Supreme Court. He served six Senate terms, from 1922 to 1957, which included stints on the Foreign Relations and Finance committees. He was a favorite-son presidential candidate in 1928. After he left the Senate, George briefly served as special ambassador to NATO, the final act in a decades-long career in public service.
But there is no full-fledged biography of George. It has been next to impossible to give muscular definition to his time in public office because he preserved virtually none of his personal papers.
It’s a cautionary tale for Members who hope to illuminate their legacy for historians and interested citizens.
“For years, they did nothing with their papers,” Senate Historian Donald Ritchie said. “Members’ legacies were forgotten.”
Ritchie contrasted how history has treated George relative to his fellow Georgia Democrat Sen. Richard Russell, whose extensive papers are housed at the University of Georgia. Russell is the subject of multiple books and has a Senate office building named after him.
In recent years, Congress has stepped up its efforts with legislative and individual reforms, with the hope that George becomes the exception rather than the rule.
In the early 1990s, the Office of the Historian provided guidance to Members on how to organize their personal papers. After the first historian’s office closed, the Office of the Clerk began advising Members on the subject in 1995, issuing a how-to guide detailing the necessary procedures for properly maintaining personal papers called the Records Management Manual. More than 17 years later, the manual is still distributed to every Member during each Congress.
Along with the manual, Members have taken a more proactive approach, enacting legislation that presses their colleagues to view the process of preservation in a more serious light.
The 110th Congress passed legislation that encouraged Members to “take all necessary measures to manage and preserve the Member’s own Congressional papers.”
Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole (R) got a jump-start on preservation before he even departed from the Senate, bringing an archivist onboard as part of his staff.
More recently, former Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), who retired in 2009, added an archivist to his staff before he officially left the Senate.
The actions of Dole and Bond reflect a growing trend in which Members, particularly those on the Senate side, hire archivists not only to help establish a system for managing the volume of paperwork but also to assist in a more seamless transition when relocating their personal papers to a depository.
Chris Gordon, director of the Missouri History Museum Library and Collections, which facilitates former Rep. Dick Gephardt’s (D-Mo.) personal papers, has noticed the changing mentality when it comes to preservation.
“[Members] think ahead on that stuff more often than they used to,” Gordon said.
Still, meticulous preparation can be hampered if a home-state repository is undercut by a shortage of staff or money.
The State Historical Society of Missouri has tried to make headway organizing its holdings of Members’ papers. But shifting funding priorities have prolonged an already tedious process.
Former Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton’s (D) papers, which are held by the historical society, were in reasonable organizational shape at their time of submission in 1986, according to Tom Miller, senior manuscript specialist at the society. But the papers have not yet been fully cataloged.
Miller said it’s difficult even for a fully staffed center to keep up.
“If we had twice the staff, we would still be unable to process it in a timely fashion,” he said.
The sheer volume of paper has sparked a debate on whether a greater share of personal papers should be digitized. Switching to an electronic format not only cuts down the herculean task of transporting thousands of papers, but also makes the material accessible to a wider audience.
Digital records make it possible for researchers across the world to delve into the papers of historical figures that might be housed thousands of miles away faster and without traveling.
But digitization cuts both ways. The size and scope of some collections make it nearly impossible to digitize every single piece, so some parts of the same documentary record might be available online while others are available only in the original format.