The Open House Project from The Sunlight Foundation

Reading Notes on The Documentation of Congress

January 27th, 2008 by John Wonderlich · 2 Comments

After going through the trouble of obtaining and digitizing the 1992 report on congressional documentation, I’ve started going systematically through the document, and, in an attempt to read more closely, have been taking notes.  This is a long post, but the parallels with the Open House Project are startling to me, as are the contrasts: since 1992 the consumer of public information has undergone a fundamental transformation, leading what was once considered relevant for archivists or researchers to become essential to practitioners of a new online breed of civic engagement.

For more background on the document, see this post, and for updates, I’m keeping notes on this page, from which future updates will likely be pulled.

-John  (start review)

compiled by the Task Force on the Documentation of Congress of the Society of American Archivists Congressional Archivists Roundtable, coming from 1989’s “Understanding Congress: A Bicentennial Research Conference”.  “the fragmented nature of congressional primary source documentation” is partly responsible for the lack of scholarly writing on the legislative branch.  Report is a “study of the archival sources that document the operations of Congress.”

“Because the documentation of Congress, in particular, most directly reveals the will of the people as expressed through their elected representatives, it is especially crucial to preserve evidence and information about the legislative process and make it accessible to the public.”  (gives great detail on problems with public access: “fragmented and geographically scattered; collections are often voluminous, of complex arrangement, inadequately indexed, and in poor physical condition; contents of many collections are uneven, with unexplained gaps in information; and repositories that receive these collections frequently lack the resources to provide state-of-the-art arrangement, description, and archival preservation.”  Project undertaken by the Task Force on Congressional Documentation of the Society of American Archivists’ Congressional Archivists Roundtable (that’s correctly transcribed).  “many of its suggestions will take years to be carried out; others can be effected immediately.”  “Among the most pressing needs are actions to improve the documentation of legislation, representation, congressional leadership, political activities, and programs of congressional support agencies.  Other recommendations are aimed at better documenting Congress’ relations and interaction with media, the executive and the judicial branches, lobbyists, and think tanks.  Finally, steps are suggested to improve documentation of the administration of Congress’ to fill gaps in the historical record through structured, coordinated oral history interview programs; and to improve the preservation of congressional sources.

Report organized into congressional “functions”, “documentation”, and “recommendations”.  (apparently there’s a 1978 report from the National Study Commission on the Records and Documents of Federal Officials, which “recommended that office files and personal papers of members of Congress be legally designated as federal records with guaranteed public access after fifteen years” (this wasn’t implemented, but that report would be useful to find).  This report led to a 2 day conference, where they decided to publish a handbook on member records management.  1985 then saw a 2 day conference on documenting Congress, put on by the “Dirksen Congressional Center and the national Historical Publications and Records Commission” (another great report to find)  This conference led to the creation of the Congressional Archivists Roundtable of the Society of American Archivists (which, in turn, led to the current day 2008 Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress (link).  (The Congressional Archivists Roundtable appears to be defunct, perhaps being defunded in the mid 90’s?)  “the “importance” [of congressional material] had not led to a determined effort to systematically appraise and preserve a documentary record of Congress.” (page vi)  Problems archivists face: “the information explosion, the computer and telecommunications revolutions, insufficient resources for archival work as government and repository budgets tighten, and the lack of clearly defined long-term strategies and action plans to accomplish overall documentary objectives.”  The response to this is a strategy, which matches the organization of this document (functions, documentation, and recommendations).    The report then lists participants.

Page ix lists contents, listing the major topics to be examined: Institutional Setting, the Legislative Process, Representation, Political Activities, External Relations, Administration and Support, Research Use of Congressional Collections, Appendices, and Notes.

Summary Report and Recommendations
Repeats problem.  “Historical records do not simply materialize.”  They’re trying to balance the needs of three authorities: members and officials of Congress “individually responsible for the on-site management of the information that is collected and maintained in their offices”, NARA’s CLA, and the “literally hundreds of archival repositories across the country [that] preserve and provide access to the personal papers that are deposited in them by the members”.  This listing seems to me to be a result of their institutional setting, my take on the jurisdictions at work in congressional information access can be found here.

Major Findings:
1. “Congressional committees are relatively, although not uniformly, well documented, [but] there is great variation in the documentary quality of individual members’ collections”  This conclusion strikes me as a result of writing in the mid 1990s, when paying meaningful attention to legislative affairs through the Internet was rather impossible.  There was little difference then between “well documented” and “publicly available (online)”, where now that difference is quite clear.  What is “well documented”, like committee hearing transcripts, or the upcoming schedules for committee hearings, in the archival sense, can also be useless for those hoping to actually watch Congress in action, even in time for upcoming elections, which is a much lower bar than the near-real time awareness lobbyists need in order to be legislatively relevant.  Thus the report’s focus on member records, which were managed in a much less standard manner then.

2. The need for a “coordinated retention plan that meets the long-term needs of Congress” as applied to congressional support agencies.  The GAO was doing well, the (now defunct) Office of Technology Assessment and Government Printing Office had partial programs, and the CRS and CBO had none.  Again, no real mention of OTA and GAO providing public documentation while CRS does not.  Our expectations of finding things online has led to a new set of expectations.  (well, that and the expectation of equal access to publicly funded documents, since CRS reports are sold through private companies.)

3. Executive Branch and Judicial Branches are doing a rather good job, but are relevant here nevertheless.

4. Other sources they feel have been thitherto overlooked: nat’l, congressional, and individual campaign committees, political party organizations; and congressional member organizations and caucuses.  (still true, 16 years later)

5. Member documentary repositories are hard to use, recommend better practices here.

6. Member materials will be better processed if offices hire and train archivists, and keep up with documents processing.

The Report then launches into specific recommendations, lining up with the table of contents, but in summary form.

Tags: CLA · Member Web Sites · NARA · OpenHouse · government websites · jurisdiction · legal research · library of congress · lobbying · lobbying disclosure · ota · preservation · senate · spub 102-20

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