Recently, I was surprised to find myself worked up over an opinion piece by Columbia University history professor Matthew Connelly that ran in the New York Times in early February. It highlighted the fact that the National Archives is letting a boatload of government records be destroyed and deleted.
Of specific interest to Connelly was the fact that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) would be destroying or deleting three-year old documents that detailed the sexual abuse and death of undocumented immigrants in their custody, including civil rights violations and bad or nonexistent medical care. A reaction from certain quarters might be that it’s no big deal since these individuals were undocumented, illegal, or some other category of “who cares.” Yet, we may be missing the point.
If it could happen with ICE records that are three years old, it could happen with records from other departments dealing with issues that some might deem more important than, say, how people were actually treated while seeking asylum. Connelly makes this point by highlighting the fact that the Department of the Interior and the National Archives are going to delete or destroy files on everything from offshore drilling to the safety of drinking water. Given how recently these records were generated, the issue isn’t confined to future historians lacking original source material; I suspect that the wholesale destruction of records could have legal and policy implications as well.
All of this prompted me to think about records retention on the local level. There are quite a few standards that local governments must adhere to when it comes to preserving records—in everything from zoning and construction to police and fire. Consider that while federal records detailing the sexual abuse and death of undocumented immigrants will be destroyed after only three years, local fire departments must retain alarm investigation reports for seven years, school district facility inspection reports for 23 years, and index card files of Fire Marshall Reports permanently.
Therefore, while the federal government is about to destroy records on endangered species, environmental laws, intellectual property, and aviation safety, local zoning and planning boards around the state must permanently save aerial photos, certificates of nonconforming structures, lot consolidation files, and planning studies. Police Departments must retain signed original grant applications and supporting documents for seven years after the termination of the grant, yet a federal agency is about to destroy records relating to the abuse of other human beings after only three years.
Something is seriously out of whack when the records retention requirements for some small municipality or borough are more stringent than a federal agency that has the power of life and death for thousands of people. We are a nation of laws and by extension, I suppose that makes us a nation of records to the extent that we are able to go back and see what the framers meant—assuming we still have the records.
It’s worth asking how such decisions are made and whether the process needs to be revised. Should contemporaries generating government records decide the fate of their “paper trail” or should that decision be left to those who have become detached and perhaps objective by the passage of time? If contemporaries are to be in the business of deciding what among their own paper trail should be retained or destroyed, are we not then obligated to view their decisions with some skepticism, assuming that their real intent is to make sure no one finds a “smoking gun” of some sort?
There is understandable concern about what to do with the tsunami of paper generated by the federal bureaucracy, but I don’t think the answer is wholesale destruction of records so much as it is to provide agencies with the people and resources necessary to digitize records. That way, records are available and accessible to those who care now and those who will care in the future.