Members Getting Into Preservation Business

Posted April 11, 2008 at 6:05pm

Between all the printed floor speeches, “Dear Colleague” letters and multiple drafts it takes to pass a bill, Members of Congress sure do use a lot of paper.

And with all of Capitol Hill’s day-to-day goings-on, the stuff printed on that paper might be viewed as fairly routine, even mundane, by most Members.

But in the end, it isn’t.

And so a measure now making its way through Congress is designed to remind Members that their personal papers provide a unique primary source of history that must be preserved.

Introduced last month by House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.), the resolution already has passed the House and is on track to pass in the Senate, where the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved it by voice vote on Thursday.

Brady introduced the bill after meeting with Clerk of the House Lorraine Miller and her staffers, who expressed concern that Members were not doing enough to take care of their personal papers, House Administration spokesman Kyle Anderson said.

“I think that part of it is making sure Members are aware,” Anderson said of the bill.

“There’s been a lack of a consistent standard,” he added. “This is designed not to impose a consistent standard, but just highlight the importance of preserving papers.”

By custom, papers are considered the personal property of Members, who are responsible for deciding how they are preserved and where they wind up. Officials who oversee Congressional operations, such as the Clerk and Secretary of the Senate, are available to assist Members in the process.

Brady’s bill — describing Congressional papers as “crucial to the public’s understanding of the role of Congress” — urges Members to “take all necessary measures to manage and preserve” their papers and arrange for their deposit “with a research institution that is properly equipped to care for them.”

That’s easier said than done, of course.

“Think of all the paper, all the information that passes through a Member’s office,” said Michael Cronin, the office director and certified archivist for the House historian. “It really is a huge amount of material.”

Perhaps the biggest struggle, Cronin said, is just getting Members to think about preserving their papers. At the end of the last session, Congressional officials found that there really wasn’t any consistency on how much was preserved, Cronin noted.

“Each Member has their own personal opinion. Some felt very strongly that their papers be preserved,” Cronin said. “Others weren’t sure. Some didn’t care much at all. I think the legislation is important because it puts it out there again to Members that this is an important part of history.”

The preservation process is pretty time intensive, Cronin said. Members must figure out how to archive documents, set up a system to do it, decide what exactly to archive and pick a place to eventually send it all.

Picking the institution to give the papers to is a big part of the preservation process. Most Members donate them to a college or university in their district — former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) gave his papers to alma mater Wheaton College, for example.

Deciding what to keep is another part. Cronin recommended that Members archive any papers related to legislation — how the Member drafted it, worked it through committee and got it passed.

Personal correspondence between Members also is important, as are copies of speeches, press clippings and even newsletters. But things such as flag requests from constituents “can probably be discarded,” Cronin said.

There’s actually an ongoing debate among archivists themselves over what should be preserved. While the progress of a bill certainly seems important, average notes between a Member and a staffer might not be.

But then again, sometimes things that don’t seem important now could become incredibly useful decades in the future.

“There are a variety of opinions because there’s so much,” Cronin said. “Everything is important and nothing is important.”

The Internet, of course, also is playing in role in what is being archived. It’s not quite an exact science yet, especially in Congress, where each Congressional office manages its own technology system.

Congressional officials are in the midst of analyzing ways to preserve electronic data; the House Administration Committee is currently studying the best ways for the chamber to archive its e-mails, for example.

“Archivists are studying and implementing different programs to make it work,” Cronin said of Internet archiving. “Certainly, it’s evolved.”

Even Members who take preservation of their papers seriously don’t always do the best job in the long run. Take House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who co-sponsored the legislation with Brady.

In his floor speech supporting the bill, Ehlers noted that he has been “delinquent” at times on his paper preservation efforts. And sometimes, with all the paper Congressional offices face each day, it’s easy to just want to put it in the recycle bin.

“I know my office certainly should be more free of clutter,” Ehlers said. “It would be easiest to discard these items along with the rest of the day’s castoffs, but as history has shown us, it is often these mundane items that have painted the most accurate and detailed picture of our nation’s history.”