The Damage Is Already Done

By Richard Wandel

One of the first things former Mayor Giuliani did after taking office was to try to cut the budget of the Municipal Archives and downgrade it from a separate division of city government to a subdivision of the buildings and maintenance department. So it should have been no surprise when, at the end of his term, he moved his administration's records to a private warehouse in Queens rather than turning them over to the Municipal Archives. A group of historians and archivists immediately formed to protest his actions.

Despite his claims that his private organization could do the archiving more efficiently, Giuliani spelled out his intentions in the initial contract -- he wanted control over which documents would become private and which would become public. Every mayor since Fiorello La Guardia has turned his records over to the Municipal Archives. Since the 1930's, it has been a public archivist who has made the distinction between what is public and what is private, not the mayor. These records are public documents and should have remained in public control.

The agreement between the outgoing administration and the Giuliani Center for Public Affairs, the private non-profit group that has been given the mayoral records, ill serves the citizens of New York City. It brings into question the integrity of the record, and makes access to the records more difficult for the public. Their integrity is suspect because the public possession of the records has been interrupted in favor of control being in the hands of the former mayor himself, with the implied ability to censor, destroy or otherwise change the record. Access has become more difficult because the agreement calls for access decisions to be made by petition to the corporate council, rather than the much simpler and more neutral mechanism of going to the Municipal Archives and seeing the documents with the assistance of professional archivists.

For historians and archivists, the continual custody of public records -- knowing where records have been and who has had access to them is essential to the integrity of the documents. Historians will look at the records of this administration and wonder "what may have happened" during the time that they were under Mr. Giuliani's control. Merely having the opportunity to tamper with the records creates suspicion. Whether one likes Rudolph Giuliani or not, and whether or not the former mayor actually tampers with his administrations records, this diversion of public property sets a dangerous precedent for future administrations. The controversy is not just about Giuliani. It is about what these public records mean to the city and to our sense of history.

Archiving is a process of assessing what records should be saved, preserving them in a way that will last for future generations, and making them available to the those who need them. The proper collection and maintenance of public records is a powerful tool for monitoring government. Archives are a fundamental element of accountability and the democratic process. If public officials can alter or censor the record of what they have done, and who they spoke to, and why decisions were made, then democracy is also jeopardized. Throughout history, leaders have sought to control government records. When Napoleon conquered Europe, he seized the records of the defeated governments and moved them to Paris. In World War II, Germany tried to control the records of the places they over ran. The Taliban destroyed records in an effort to erase the culture and history of all that came before them - all record of what did not agree with their version of history and culture.

History creates a community's identity. Whether that is the identity of the people of the United States, of New Yorkers, of women, of blacks, or of gays and lesbians, it is the historic record which gives us a sense of who we are and where we have come from. Until a group has an identity that it feels secure in and proud of it cannot go forward and it remains vulnerable to however others wish to define them.

The former mayor's actions come at a time when the city has suffered a great loss to some of its archival collections.

In the attack of September 11, a number of businesses, non-profit groups, and government agencies lost irreplaceable records and historic documents. It also comes at a time when hundreds of different institutions across the city are collecting documents, emails, office blueprints, photographs, and personal accounts from the World Trade Center attacks. The public is aware of the importance of this information and how it helps us to understand all that happened that day.

The Giuliani administration's records are an essential part of this collection of September 11th documents. Unfortunately, these same documents will always be viewed with some suspicion because of the legal and political battles that surround them.

Perhaps even more importantly, this provides an opening for future administrations to censor or otherwise control the record of their administration. For that reason, regardless of the outcome of this particular case it is imperative that the City Council makes sure that the public right to ownership and access to administration records can never again be compromised as they have in the current case.

Richard Wandel is a Board member of the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, a not-for-profit organization representing a diverse group of more than 330 professional archivists, librarians, and records managers in the New York metropolitan area. He is the Associate Archivist of the New York Philharmonic and is the volunteer archivist/historian of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center.

Read "Creating the Best Archives for the City" by Saul Cohen
Read "Municipal Neglect" by James Epstein


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