Monday, May 03, 2004

It's not very often that historians' controversies make the mainstream media, but the press actually seems to be paying some attention to the sudden departure of National Archivist John Carlin.

Here's a joint statement from a bunch of scholarly organizations, including the Society of American Archivists, the American Historical Association and the American Library Association.

Essentially, there are two issues. The first is that it's not clear why Carlin is leaving, as he had indicated a desire to stay on for another year. He's refusing to talk to the press, and it looks like it wasn't his choice to retire. There's some suspicion that the Bush administration wants an archivist who will be willing to let them put off the planned release of potentially-embarrassing records relating to the George H. W. Bush administration. The second is that, in the past, groups representing archivists and historians have been consulted about the choice of a new archivist. The Bush administration has bypassed these organizations and appointed someone who, although he professes to be a Democrat, looks like a partisan candidate. And, to me most shockingly, the new nominee, Allen Weinstein, has been accused of ethical violations related to archives in the past. According to that article:

For Weinstein's 1998 book The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America--The Stalin Era, his publisher, Random House, in 1993 paid a group of retired KGB agents a substantial amount of money--Weinstein has told people $100,000--in exchange for "exclusive" access to the KGB archives (see Ellen Schrecker, "The Spies Who Loved Us?" May 24, 1999). This appears to violate the code of ethics of the International Council on Archives, which calls for "the widest possible access" to documents.

The very idea of "exclusive access to archives" offends every standard of acceptable historical practice. The way that the profession works is that people are supposed to be able to evaluate each others' sources: it's the only way to tell whether the a historian has overlooked something or, for that matter, made it all up. This is really basic stuff, and I can't even wrap my head around the idea that the guy who's going to be in charge of the National Archives is someone who thinks it's ok to deny other historians access to your sources. It's like appointing someone who rejects the scientific method to head up the FDA.

Oh, wait. Didn't they try something like that?

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