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A finding aid is a descriptive guide to the content of a collection. The guide describes the origin, background, contents, and arrangement of a collection. It also includes a folder listing of the contents.

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PROGRESS NOTES

Progress Notes: Where We Stand on
The Personal and Political Papers of Barry M Goldwater
Linda Whitaker, CA
   

Report #3:
Heart of Darkness: Constituent Mail and Legislative Files


Constituent mail. It’s the subject of recurrent Congressional Papers Roundtable discussions and the bane of our existence. Researchers say, “Save it!” Those who arrange and describe it often think otherwise. Nevertheless, we doggedly look for ways to make this material accessible without wasting valuable time and resources. And so it goes with the Goldwater papers.

I’ve circled this problem for months, studying previous attempts at arranging constituent mail, talking to Goldwater staffers, and reviewing various lists and inventory sheets. Constituent mail was never labeled as such and was considered “public relations.” Despite that, very little of this type of mail can be found within the traditional office files.

Constituent mail is everywhere. It represents the bulk of files (over 70%) found within each congressional session (91st-99th Congress). Container lists generated in the 1970s indicate that this mail was listed alphabetically by sender (repeating the alphabet several times) and also by topic. Case files are also embedded within constituent mail. Additionally, constituent mail could be found under a category called “military” which may have reflected how office staff originally filed it. Constituent mail is also within specific bill files and within committee folders. No filing system was consistently applied.

No matter how one slices and dices it, constituent mail is constituent mail - people, places, corporations, and agencies expressing their (usually unsolicited) opinions on pending legislation, asking for help, or just complaining about the federal government. A non-scientific sampling of the alphabetical sender lists, subject lists, and military mail reveals no substantive differences among the letters in any category. Nothing was arranged as “Issue Mail” despite plenty of evidence that someone started to aggregate large volumes of constituent correspondence regarding Vietnam, though none of it appears within the military category.

All of this has made navigating the legislative files a challenge. To this day, the Goldwater legislative files generate the most frustration among staff members and complaints from researchers. I would use Mark Greene’s (American Heritage Center) shovel if I could. But given the controversial history and high profile nature of these papers, I can’t. So what to do?

• First, we segregate the true individual case files which are evident by their “action” and “closed” notations. They are notable for their distinctive pink and blue labels. These will be unceremoniously boxed but available to researchers upon request. We will use Jan Zastrow’s (University of Hawaii) special permission sheet as needed.

• Second, we blend all the alphabetical by sender files into one A-Z list versus the three lists that now exist.

• Third, we treat the constituent mail arranged by subject as Issue Mail which would capture all the topics and perhaps a lot more.

• Fourth, we aggregate the military constituent letters and arrange them alphabetically by sender. Goldwater gave this correspondence priority, partly as a reflection of his membership of the Armed Services Committee, partly as a military man. We shall do the same.

• Lastly, we repeat this for each congressional session, the 91st through the99th.

Assuming we live to tell about it, the bulk of the Goldwater papers will be processed a year from now. Stay tuned. I haven’t weighed in yet on the Goldwater artifacts. Therein lies a tale.