Progress Notes: Where We Stand on
The Personal and Political Papers of Barry M Goldwater
Linda Whitaker, CA
The Last Stand:
Tucking in Constituent Correspondence for
Happily and to the relief of everyone here, this will be the last progress note on the Goldwater papers posted to this site. (We are that close physically to tucking it all in!)
It’s been way too long since a report has appeared here –not due to lack of progress but due to lack of time. In the interim, we opted for newsletter articles, presentations and panel discussions to advance more focused dialogs about congressional collections generally. We worked on a manual of national standards and best practices for Managing Congressional Collections. We served (and still serve) on the Congressional Papers Roundtable. But mostly, we worked like mad on getting the processing done. This last stretch has sorely tested our self-imposed timeline not mention our patience. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Constituent correspondence can represent over 50% of the total volume of a congressional collection. It is the bane of a congressional archivist’s existence – a seemingly endless stream of letters, telegrams and postcards representing every possible point of view on every possible issue. Office holders point to it with pride as proof they are serving their constituencies. However, it is a source of considerable debate in professional circles. What is the research value? Can we increase the research value? Do we sample? How do we sample? Is it worth the effort? Does anyone care? For all these reasons and more, we left constituent correspondence until last because we had to establish reliable patterns within the Personal and Legislative Series before proceeding with other series. In retrospect, this served us well.
What We Found
- Original order? Forget it. This material had been shifted, heavily marked, re-labeled and eventually abandoned over time. None of it was found in original folders or in original order.
- Constituent correspondence grew more chaotic and unpredictable as the congressional sessions progressed. The 97th-99th Congresses contained more Alpha Files, VIP and Colleague Correspondence than all of the previous congresses combined – all filed under “miscellaneous.”
- A significant amount of personal correspondence was also found in “miscellaneous correspondence.”
- There were 3-4 runs of “miscellaneous” folders labeled A-Z within each congressional session that were indistinguishable from much of the Issue Mail.
- There were too many orphan documents separated from legislative material.
- There was a surprising amount gray literature and ephemera that didn’t seem to fit anywhere.
- There was no consistency within “miscellaneous.” Documents were filed intermittently by sender, by organization, by city and town, or more often by all of these regardless of their origination or topic.
What We Did
- Created a new (some might say unconventional) Constituent Service category of Projects and Programs where non-legislative gray literature such as constituent generated grant proposals, local reports, state declarations and formal requests, white papers, local-regional initiatives, and technical brochures would fit. This is bulky, hard-to-find material with high research value. We know this because researchers request it regularly.
- Built on previous attempts at sorting Issue Mail by topic which significantly decreased the “miscellaneous” category. The issues range from national to local – some with big runs, some with small runs. To our surprise, researchers have asked for the relatively smaller runs of issues concerning the elderly, transportation, urban development, clean air, tourism, labor, and voting rights.
- Decided on a one size fits all, Constituent Correspondence A-Z by sender. By that we mean the signatory at the end of the document. This served us well for multi-issue correspondence, orphan documents, and odds and ends that didn’t fit elsewhere. It also meant that you could reliably find follow-up correspondence from one congressional session to the next.
What We Learned Along the Way
The notion of posting progress reports is an experiment in transparency. It was also an attempt to alert the research public and the archives community that the Goldwater papers were in play.
- Open these collections up as you work. They take too long to formally process. No researcher and very few donors or administrators want to wait that long. Post reports, talk about them with colleagues, but get the word out.
- If you process it or if you don’t, they will come. Remember, these documents were largely created at public expense.
- High profile papers and their creators don’t necessarily guarantee preservation, access or longevity. It takes an archivist’s advocacy, commitment and steady hand to make that a reality.
Next Step: Weeks of data entry and completion of the finding aid