Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Review of Managing Congressional Collections

Managing Congressional Collections

My review of Managing Congressional Collections by Cynthia Pease Miller. (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2008).
Published in Metropolitan Archivist, Summer 2009.

Managing Congressional Collections, a project of SAA’s Congressional Papers Roundtable funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, assists archivists who preserve the manuscripts of members of Congress. A senator generates approximately 100 boxes of archival material a year. These papers are historically significant, yet are often underused and poorly understood by researchers and repositories. Holding “tremendous, and often untapped, historic value,” congressional collections simultaneously document national, regional, and local public policy issues, displaying complex relationships between senators, representatives, and the people they serve (2).

Author Cynthia Pease Miller, former assistant of the House of Representatives, staff archivist for three senators and a Senate committee, and founding member of SAA’s Congressional Papers Roundtable, steers readers from acquisition to outreach. Chapters also focus on administration, transfer, processing, and reference. She offers advice on calculating space, personnel, and budgets; offers ideas for sustainability and external funding sources; and proposes cost-saving strategies. She also discusses access issues regarding classified, declassified, and reclassified documents.

Appendices include a chronology of advances in managing congressional collections, network information, a sample deed of gift, a congressional office staff list, guidelines for file disposition, frequently asked questions, and a bibliography.

The manual’s publication is well timed in an election year and after Congress’ resolution urging members to save their papers for public use. Beginning with the establishment of a Historical Office in the Senate in 1975, scholars, librarians, archivists, and administrators have advocated improving the management and use of these records of enduring value. House Concurrent Resolution 307, included in the volume, was passed by the House on March 5, 2008 and the Senate on June 20th. The resolution states that congressional papers should be properly maintained; that each member should take necessary measures to manage and preserve their papers; and that they should be encouraged to donate their papers with a research institution that is properly equipped to preserve them and to make them available for use. While the resolution does not define the content or scope of the papers, it states the members’ belief in the manuscripts’ value “as indispensable sources for the study of American representative democracy” and in the importance of preserving documentary evidence that results from national service.

Managing Congressional Collections benefits all archivists, who encounter in their collections similar difficulties that congressional manuscripts present, as they “epitomize every management problem associated with twentieth and twenty-first century records,” including high profiles, elevated donor expectations, significant costs, and obstacles to access (5). Congressional papers are the fabric of our democracy, the primary sources of our nation’s history. As archivists, we must rise to the challenge of preserving and presenting congressional documentation.

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