What Happens to the Papers of Dead Historians?


Mr. Liebers is an HNN intern.

For intellectual historians, biographers and students looking for senior research projects, the archives of former historians are often indispensable troves of  information.  Letters between scholars often cut to the center of the most pressing arguments in the field, and notes and drafts of books aid in understanding the intellectual development of historians. 

Several prominent historians have passed away in recent months.  Among them, John Hope Franklin, Professor of History at Duke University, pioneer of African-American History and former president of the American Historical Association (AHA) and the Organization of American Historians (OAH); Kenneth Stampp, the prolific historian of slavery and the Civil War at the University of California, Berkeley; and David Donald, famous for his biography of Abraham Lincoln.  Where can we expect the papers of these luminaries to be archived?

Most universities make an effort to archive the papers of their acclaimed faculty.  Sometimes this is arranged in wills.  In all likelihood, Donald's papers will be given to Houghton Library at Harvard.  Stampp already has an oral history and one box of papers deposited in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, but its unclear whether the rest of his papers will be archived. Franklin's papers will likely be kept by his home institution. 

But there is no written procedure for processing these important documents.  Robert Townsend, Assistant Director of Research and Publications with the AHA, wishes that there was a more standard practice.  He points out that "either because it is the wish of the historian, or because the family has no idea what to do with remaining papers, it seems that most are not preserved." 

This can pose problems for intellectual historians who rely on letters, notes and other documents to expose sides of historians not always apparent from their published works.  David Brown, Professor of History at Elizabethtown College, says that when he is working on intellectual biographies, correspondences are important to discern the "attitudes and moods which can be conveyed in published work but are often reserved for private communications."  Of any recent work, Brown's Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography,  best illustrates this point.  Unpublished works personalize intellectual figures, placing them within the context of their intellectual and political environments.  The nature of Hofstadter's engagement with politics, and his reluctance to associate with politicians (as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. did), comes through effectively because of Brown's use of letters.  In other places, the correspondence between Hofstadter and his former student Christopher Lasch reveals the tension in the transition from one generation of scholars to the next.  Lasch's collection of papers, letters, and notes, given to the University of Rochester by his wife, are now the subject of many graduate and undergraduate research projects.

Brown also points out that the archiving of papers is a self-selecting process.  Historians who organize their correspondences effectively and make plans for them will have them preserved.  If they leave the task up to their relatives there are no guarantees.  Pulitzer prize-winning historian of the American Civil War James McPherson hasn't yet given much systematic thought to where his papers will go.  "I don't really know whether a library or any other archive would be interested in my papers," McPherson explains, "I guess that's why I haven't made any decisions."  In fact, for an historian like McPherson, whose work has made fundamental contributions to some of the most studied parts of the American past, the question of whether or not anybody is interested isn't up in the air.  Somebody will have them.  It's hard to judge what will be of use to the historians of the future, so its best always to archive when possible. 

McPherson points out that his paper trail has thinned since he started using e-mail.  Since e-mail became the most widely used mode of communication, everyone's correspondences are now not only automatically saved but searchable. Some university archives have already started archiving e-mail correspondences.  Brown saw e-mail documents among the William Leuchtenburg Papers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The question remains, is it appropriate to publicly archive e-mail history? 

Historians probably wouldn't mind making their e-mails with colleagues on intellectual matters made public. But it would be a chore to separate out all the elaborate (but surely veracious) excuse e-mails from undergraduates looking for extensions on papers. 

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Maarja Krusten - 10/6/2009

Just in case anyone is interested, here's a link to information posted by one of the best known records management associations (ARMA) on email management:

Maarja Krusten - 10/6/2009

Thanks for the nice comments! Records management still largely relies on people. With apologies in advance for the long response, here's why.

Email should be managed along the same principles as paper material once was before people started using PCs. In this day and age, at home or at the office, the user generally makes the judgment call. In the past, in an office environment, records management largely was a centralized function. Nowadays, records management in organizations has become decentralized. Instead of training the secretaries who used to type correspondence, records managers train and provide guidance to everyone who uses a computer to generate records.

Managing email works much the same as managing paper flow did in the old days. Content is the driver; retention or deletion depends on categorization. Records managers teach people to categorize records as they create them or as they come in to their email in-boxes. In most cases, they work with the organization's lawyers to ensure compliance, since there can be severe repercussions to mishandling organizational records when it comes to legal discovery and court cases. Federal and state organizations (including state universities) comply with certain laws, businesses with certain specialized requirements (including Sarbanes-Oxley).

Technology adds a new wrinkle but the judgement calls on deletion/retention are much the same as they were in the pre-computer age. Fifteen years ago, most people in an office still received hard copy versions of much of what now is transmitted through email. A flyer announcing a reception for a departing colleague? Ephemeral. You threw it away after noting the date on your desk calendar. A policy directive that affected office operations? You filed it in a file drawer. A draft of an important product with handwritten comments from a colleague which you wanted to keep to preserve his or her input? Filed in a filing cabinet. People now make the same judgment calls with email, deleting transitory ones soon after receipt, saving ones they need for future reference, except they do it electronically.

It would be hard to automate this entirely. You can't categorize just by keywords. For example, an email reading: "The time for the task force meeting on changes to the manual has been changed to 10:00 am" would have short retention value. You could delete it manually after reading or just allow the email system to auto-delete it from the server after 60 days. A longer email providing substantive input from a key player into changes to the manual which task force members are writing would have longer term value. You'd want to save it. Length also is not an indicator. A long chatty note about family matters with the header "update" exchanged among colleagues may have little historical value to an organization. It wouldn't even be considered an official record. A much shorter message providing critical information about action taken by the organization may be essential in later sorting through what happened and why.

At its most basic, saving messages and other material electronically involves saving to a hard drive or a network drive. That's not a great solution, but it's better than the "needle in a haystack" scenario if an organization has to search server backup tapes kept by its IT staff. (You've probably heard about the "missing emails" at the White House a couple of years ago.) However, most offices now have electronic Document Management (DM) Systems in place. Some have the added layer of enterprise Electronic Records Management Systems atop their DM functions.

I don't know how many people weed and purge their personal email at home but I would guess many do. Business email clients, such as Novell GroupWise, enable users to set up electronic folders. Not all personal email clients have that functionality, however.

Thanks again for the very interesting article and comment!


David Thaddeus Liebers - 10/6/2009

Dr. Krusten,

Thanks for your interesting response. I didn't realize that Universities already had policies in place that sorted e-mail by content. Is there software thats able to differentiate between, say, an e-mail correspondence between two professors on pre-capitalist habits of yeoman farmers, and one on the good farmers market up the street on Sunday mornings?

Even if there are very good policies about what to do with professional v. personal controlled e-mails, my point is that in practice, it would be a laborious process to sift through every single e-mail sent out by every single professor of history to determine what's appropriate and what's not.

How about Professors that use non-University provided e-mail accounts, or have messages forwarded to personal e-mails? Is it really true that the existence of administrative policy at University and federal level makes my point about separating the wheat from the chaff moot?



Maarja Krusten - 10/6/2009

It sounds as if you handled this very well, indeed, Dr. Bornet. Thank you for sharing your thinking on this interesting issue. Given the care and thought you put into your decisions, I would guess that there are many researchers and archivists who are very appreciative of your approach. As a former archivist with the National Archives' Office of Presidential Libraries, now working on the "other side" as an historian, I am glad to see some of your materials ended up at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library.

vaughn davis bornet - 10/6/2009

I know something about archives, but don't qualify as a professional Archivist. Still, I had the title at RAND and wrote a document in re their archives, so....

I am of the belief that the scholar who seeks to dispose of his archives intelligently needs first to say, "Who is going to use these? What makes sense FOR him/her?"

Examples: After a three year project on Calif. Social Welfare, I knew the five drawers of beautifully organized records (great secretary) would be used at UC Berkeley (Bancroft) or not at all. Easy.

My labor/radicalism archives? Why, Wis. St. Hist'l Soc., of course. (Footnotes to them appeared within two years.)

Records of an Am. Heart Assn. project? Why Social Welfare Archives, Univ. of Minn. Records from Welfare in America, too.

I think some 27 feet of material, or less, so far, ended up at Herbert Hoover Pres. Lib. in West Branch. Subject: HH, the Twenties, Parties. Hoover book.

I could have given all to Stanford (as E. E. Robinson did); but that choice would have been for ME, not the user.

I did pay to have my RAND oral history project duplicated and sent the dup. to HH. Do that, in case of any doubts.

I wrote and typed maybe thirty essays to accompany all kinds of archival material. Opportunities, possibilities, explanations....

Nothing to favorite alma maters Emory, Georgia, Stanford. Or employer So. Ore. Univ.

Just MY way of doing it, very late in a long life.


Maarja Krusten - 10/5/2009

In discussing the papers of historians, one needs to distinguish between personal papers to which an individual holds legal title and certain records created on the job, for which an employer may hold title and control disposition under records management principles.

For employer controlled material, how long something must be kept is determined by content, not by medium of transmission. Whether something was written by hand on a piece of paper or sent by email does not affect retention, although if steps aren’t taken to preserve the latter properly, it can affect ease of access decades hence.

In most workplaces, since content drives retention of messages sent on a university’s email system, ephemera such as “excuse emails from undergraduates” would not be treated the same as summaries of meetings. Under generally accepted records management principles, the former would have temporary retention value, the latter might have long term retention value warranting transfer by the University to its Archives. The university would control future access to preserved email.

The University of Washington’s records management site includes this explanation of records retention scheduling: “Every paper or electronic record has a specific amount of time that it needs to be kept. This is called a retention period. Once the retention period has ended, the record is either shredded if confidential, recycled if it is not confidential, or transferred to the University Archives if it has permanent legal, fiscal, administrative, or historical value.”

For an explanation of historical university records held at the Bentley Library, see this from the University of Michigan:

At the federal level, the job related records of historians such as Philip Zelikow, who served as a counselor to the Secretary of State, would be maintained under records retention schedules approved by the U.S. National Archives under the Federal Records Act.

Libraries and historical societies often collect the donated personal materials of academics. How something was created and maintained can affect future access to personal electronic files as well as those which reside on a university server. Anyone who once used AOL at home during the mid or late 1990s and now uses Outlook has experienced this. No matter how careful you once were about saving some of your email messages to the old AOL electronic “file cabinet,” then saving the Organize cache to a disk or CD, you cannot simply open and examine the old cached AOL messages through the Outlook mail client.

If you choose to save messages on your email client’s server rather than on a hard drive, you do so in the expectation that the company will stay in business and the data remain accessible to you. There also is the question of accessing electronic messages after someone passes. In the past, family members could access some letters that deceased loved ones had received and preserved copies in paper form. In the electronic age, attempts by family members to access the email accounts of dead loved ones, in cases where they did not know the password, have resulted in some court cases. Some email providers delete accounts and their contents after a certain period of inactivity so family members would have to establish the legal right to access the preserved messages in an account via the email client’s server within a set amount of time.