[Marxism] A dubious archivist

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon May 3 13:10:29 MDT 2004


LA Times, May 2, 2004
GOVERNMENT
Historian With a History
The nominee for U.S. archivist has a penchant for dubious methods.

By Jon Wiener, Jon Wiener is a professor of history at UC Irvine and 
contributing editor to the Nation magazine. His forthcoming book is 
"Historians in Trouble." E-mail: wiener at uci.edu.

Go ahead, try. Name the archivist of the United States.

It's a pretty fair bet you failed. The archivist, former Kansas Gov. 
John Carlin, oversees the nation's most important documents: the 
Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. The 
position has traditionally been one of the lower-profile jobs in the 
federal hierarchy, but, as its website notes, the National Archives is 
not simply "a dusty hoard of ancient history. It is a public trust on 
which our democracy depends. It enables people to inspect for themselves 
the record of what government has done."

The archives collects and preserves the records of government, including 
many presidential papers and documents from hearings such as those 
conducted last month by the 9/11 commission. In the next year, the 
archives will be preparing the release of papers from President George 
H.W. Bush's term in office.

Researchers rely heavily on the archives' documents and on its 
commitment to openness and access, which may be why so many historians 
are deeply worried about President Bush's nomination last month of 
historian Allen Weinstein to take over the job from Carlin next year.

The White House nominee has a controversial history involving charges of 
excessive secrecy and of ethical violations. Almost two dozen 
organizations of archivists and historians have expressed concern about 
his nomination, and will almost certainly speak against it at Senate 
hearings later this year.

The charges against Weinstein center on ethical issues involving access 
to research materials he used in writing two books. Other historians 
have not been permitted to see his documents and interviews, which 
violates the standards of the American Historical Assn. and the Society 
of American Archivists.

Weinstein's 1999 book, "The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America — 
The Stalin Era" (coauthored with a Russian-speaking former KGB agent 
named Alexander Vassiliev), is based on documents said to come from KGB 
archives.

Weinstein's publisher, Random House, paid approximately $100,000 to an 
organization of retired KGB agents to gain exclusive access to the 
documents for its authors — something widely regarded as a violation of 
research ethics. It's wrong for a historian (or his publisher) to pay 
archivists not to provide information to anyone else. It prevents others 
from checking the accuracy and completeness of the resulting work.

After the archival operation at the KGB had been going on for two years, 
the Russian government closed it down. It has remained closed ever 
since, leaving Vassiliev (Weinstein doesn't speak Russian) as one of the 
few people to have had access to it. The result, says Anna K. Nelson, a 
historian with expertise in government archives policy, is that "we have 
no way to confirm the contents of this book."

Other historians with other publishers did it the right way: When Yale 
University Press obtained access to the Communist Party archives in 
Moscow, editors declared that their documents would be available to 
other researchers. Jonathan Brent, executive editor of the "Annals of 
Communism" book series at Yale, explained that "we want to enhance 
scholarship, not impede it."

full: 
<http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/sunday/commentary/la-op-wiener2may02,1,2041240.story>
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