House Historians Follow Ex-Members’ Paper Trail

Posted January 27, 2004 at 4:37pm

It’s taken a few years for Robin Reeder to reach the “C” listings in the Congressional Biographical Directory, and, by her own reckoning, it could be a long time before she reaches the last entry, for the late Rep. John Matthew Zwach (R-Minn.).

Reeder, who serves as the federal agency records officer in the House Office of History and Preservation, is combing the directory’s nearly 10,000 listings in an attempt to track down the personal papers of former lawmakers.

The seemingly infinite project — Reeder acknowledges that after reaching the final entry she, or her successor, will need to begin all over again — is intended as a supplement to the basic entries found in the Congressional Biographical Directory. (The 16th edition of the guide, which is available online at bioguide.congress.gov, is scheduled for publication in 2005.)

The information, listed on the directory’s Web site under “Research Collections,” includes not only where a collection is located, but also detailed information on its contents, such as whether it contains photographs, films or materials related to specific committees.

The research is daunting not merely because of the potential number of repositories, both public and private, that are home to various lawmakers’ papers but also because there is no official mechanism governing the process.

While the Clerk of the House is mandated by House rules to collect and preserve the official records of all chamber committees and officers, Members are responsible for deciding if or where to deposit their own documents.

“Sometimes it’s a challenge just to convince [lawmakers] that it’s important material and that it has research value,” said Rebecca Johnson Melvin, who chairs the Society of American Archivists’ Congressional Papers Roundtable steering committee. “I think there’s a growing awareness that the collections are useful.”

The roundtable, a private organization, acts as “a collegial network” among archivists with an interest in Congressional records.

Reeder serves as an ex-officio member of the steering committee along with representatives of the Senate Historical Office and the National Archives and Records Administration’s Center for Legislative Archives, and she often works with the organization to locate document collections.

Similarly, NARA maintains a listing of Congressional collections at nearly 80 institutions nationwide, a project begun by Melvin at the University of Delaware, where she serves as an associate librarian.

“We’ve taken on a few responsibilities such as maintaining the database,” Matt Fulgham, a supervisory archivist at the Center for Legislative Archives, noted of the group’s relationship with the roundtable. “It’s helpful for both of us.”

And it is not uncommon for the three institutions to interact in the collection of official records, a major function of the Office of History and Preservation.

“We provide guidance,” Reeder notes. The office publishes a manual on preserving records and also conducts an annual workshop for Capitol Hill staffers.

The history office encourages House Members to “treat us as your supplemental file cabinet,” added Kenneth Kato, who heads the office.

The House Legislative Resource Center maintains the official papers, though not Members’ personal records, for the most recent two Congresses, and older items are stored by NARA’s Center for Legislative Archives.

“They do an amazing job working with the committees, the committee clerks, trying to get them to understand the importance of records management, records keeping,” said Fulgham, who added that teaching Members “what not to keep is just as important.”