Mr. Rosenzweig Goes to Washington
My microfilm matinee at the Library of Congress
by Mark Rosenzweig
I had occasion in the last few weeks to visit the Library of Congress
in Washington, DC in order to view a most controversial microfilm
collection. I arrived unannounced as patrons are known to do at
times, even at the microfilm reading room, knowing full well what I
was looking for and (approximately) where I was going to find it.
Actually finding the reading room was another matter. Security was,
as they say these days, impressive and one felt like one was visiting
the Pentagon or the CIA rather than a library. Post 9/11 you know.
Forms to fill out, questions to answer, ID's needed, just to get in
the door. After the form-filling at the desk one was sent to a
special 'waiting' room to get ones own spiffy photo ID made (that
took about twenty minutes) which, inelegantly, one had to wear on the
premises. It's the kind of thing that doesn't 'go' with anything and
makes you feel like the manager at a K-mart.
Fortunately no one in my small group of cohorts looked like an 'Arab'
(probably would have been strip searched!) or had religious reasons
for objecting to graven images (photo IDs) being produced. My own mug
shot on my LC ID was unpleasant-looking enough that it should have
been banned on aesthetic if not religious grounds. Of course we had
to then 'check' every thing at yet another location not exactly next
door or in the direction we wanted to go.
The instructions to get from this check-room to the microfilm reading
room were so complex that we quite soon were lost in this
fluorescent-lit underground maze of institutional
grey-green-brown-blech hallways, devoid of what we in the library
business call 'signage'. So weary were we at what turned out to be
halfway that we viewed the sudden appearance of a snack shop
concession in the middle of nowhere, a place of absolutely anonymous
rows of office doorways and blank walls, as a mirage, while visions
of coffee and donuts danced in our fevered heads. The coffee was
real, however, at least in the sense of not being an hallucination
induced by flickering fluorescent light in an airless environment, at
least lukewarm and tasted like it was only a week old and for the
lucky among us at least some of the donuts plopped decisively from a
rotating carousel machine, stale and singularly unappealing. But by
this point, already an hour into our odyssey from the entrance we
needed whatever sustenance could be had.
The remainder of the trip, with many exciting detours and wrong
turns, will be the subject of my lecture at the Explorers' Club next
month and so I won't comment on the environmental peculiarities and
geographical anomalies of the underground journey further at this
point except to note that we ran into only a few indigenous peoples
and some scurrying wildlife familiar to New Yorkers as a species
often fought at close range with a spray can in even the better
households and whose much larger, friendlier and more aggressive
brothers inhabit the subways of New York in numbers which make the
squeamish shiver to contemplate.
This was, to be sure, not a casual visit, and so I couldn't fully
enjoy the journey (nor photograph it, as our cameras, tape recorders
etc were all confiscated at the check point), preoccupied as I was
with my mission, an important part of my pursuit of fairness and
justice in an ethical and legal dispute with the LC over their
exclusive holding of certain material, the terms under which they are
being held, the circumstances in which they were obtained and the
conditions placed on their use.
The microfilm collection in question is a supposedly single,
restricted copy of previously unavailable papers of an existing US
political party--the CPUSA -- a party which was the subject of an
almost perpetual witch-hunt from the 1919 Palmer Raids through the
'better dead than Red' decades of jailings, deportations, executions,
black-listings, career-bustings, family-destroyings,
reputation-shatterings, privacy-invasions, frame-ups, slanders and
gossip-mongerings, to the downright deadly COINTELPRO covert
operations of the 60s and 70s, original papers nonetheless of a
legitimate American political party which ended up in post-Soviet
Russia when that federation fell and to which the present government
of that country claims ownership (without any documentation of such
claim). These papers, in what they call 'fond 515', of this still
operative US political party sent to the then-Soviet Union for
safekeeping, represented a large, significant, valuable collection of
original material from 1919 to 1944.
These materials had never been properly accessioned in Russia (or the
USSR), receipt legally acknowledged or ownership legally transferred
to the auspices of either the Soviet or certainly the post-Soviet
government archival establishment, which latter claims complete
As the Director of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies
in New York City, I'm the legally designated superintendent of (among
other things) the libraries of books , periodicals and pamphlets, the
manuscripts, documents, indexes, catalogs, photo collections, films,
videos, sound recordings, special collections of realia, art work, of
the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) and its predecessor
organizations, as well as its affiliated mass organizations and its
publications. I bear principle responsibility for the collection, its
preservation, arrangement , description, cataloging, reprography,
rights, access, promotion and reference services -- on-site and
remote -- to these holdings (that is, those which were not legally
endowed upon other archives, libraries, museums. or historical
societies, as much of it has been, on an ad hoc, but legal, basis
over the years). I hold this responsibility as the chief executive
officer of a not-for-profit educational institution registered as
such by the State of New York whose Board of Directors has employed
me as a librarian, archivist and manager of a public-access research
facility. You don't need a photo-id to get in and you don't need to
tell me in writing everything about you before I serve you as a
The greatest part of this organization's material, which is not -- to
say the least -- under my control, is held in Washington DC, not far
from the Library of Congress, by the FBI, which it had stealthily and
illegally stolen or copied and/ or partially or totally destroyed
and /or falsified and or/or disfigured, 'acquired', so to speak, by
US government spies and informers since 1919, probably the greatest
secret collection of all of this dissident political organization's
historical documentation (as well as the documentation of the
government's maniacally intense sureveillance of the organization's
individual members, all friends of members, family of members,
sympathizers of causes of members, attendees of events sponsored by
members, of their habits, their love lives, the books they checked
out of the library, who they had a drink with, information
meticulously collected yet only very minimally and with great
difficulty obtainable by legitimate researchers, the public, or even
the individuals whose records they are, whose lives they document in
their peculiar way, through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA),
which presupposes -- need I say?-- that you already know (with some
specificity) that it is there when you request it, and which is
allowed to be released, even to the individual parties whose papers
they are, only in heavily 'redacted' (censored) form under the best
There is a longish list of reasons for redaction which is straight
out of Kafka. But that is another story.
I will not here recount either the hoarding of illegally obtained
materials by the FBI or the issues involved in the on-going dispute
between the Reference Center for Marxist Studies with me as director,
the Library of Congress with James Billington (a gouty academic
anti-Communist 'conspiracy theorist' -- of renown if not repute -- as
Director); his employee, the sub-academic archivist John Earl Haynes
(who bought this pirated, purloined material at Billington's behest
in (poor quality) microfilm from unethically entrepreneurial Russian
archivists without so much as contacting or recognizing the
legitimacy of the existing organization whose papers they actually
are (the CPUSA) nor consideration of the possibility which he -- and
the LC's lawyers -- absolutely refuses to consider -- that they, my
client, the CPUSA, had a legitimate interest in the matter; the
Russian Government Archive of Social and Political History, known by
visiting scholars (and written-up in the literature) as an
institution in utter disarray and riven with corruption), and, last
of all, the toothless Society of American Archivists (SAA). It's a
ripping yarn but the last stitch is far from tied: you can read about
it elsewhere and I hope you do.
This deals with something else librarians might find amusing.
Having finally found the microfilm reading room where this material I
was interested in was held, I went to the reference desk with my
friends, one a Princeton graduate with an MA in Russian and Soviet
Studies and fluent in Russian, brought along in case there were
translation issues and because I needed some jocular company, the
other someone with some knowledge of intellectual property issues.
We all three had to fill out forms including stating what we were
there to research. We got one copy of what was called a provisional
finding aid telling what was on what roll of microfilm and stating,
in the introduction, mysteriously, that there was, in fact, a finding
aid in Russian but they didn't have a copy and it hadn't been
translated 'yet' (it would help to have a copy to translate it and
there are actually people here doing research -- like the friend I
brought along -- who could have read it).
We then were asked to sign yet another form agreeing to stipulations
made by the Russians (!) on the use of the material, stipulations
which were unusual indeed, especially given it was (a) not their
material and (b) they were requesting things which were ethically
questionable in terms of the Society of American Archivists' Code of
Ethics, making it dubious for the LC to hold the copy of the material
under those conditions. Most unusual was ceding to the Russians the
right to decide who could use the material for what purposes in what
form -- especially since it was my client's material.
I asked as pseudo-innocently as possible (I'm not a great actor)
whether this form I and my friends had to sign was typical of signed
conditions for the use of others of their collections.
Without a moments hesitation the person at the desk said "No, just
this one". Nonplussed (and looking it every bit), I foolishly asked
if this didn't seem odd to him, at which point he realized he had
better refer me and my pals to higher authorities. He asked if I
would like to speak with archivist John Earl Haynes who was 'in
charge' of the material. I said "Not particularly, but if I did, when
would he be available." Oh, he would be in next week. Thanks but I
wasn't staying that long.
The head of Reference was available after lunch however and I was
welcome to speak with her. I said I would consider that, but in the
meantime would like to see the microfilm. And, "by the way, does this
department have a 'patron confidentiality policy' ?"
Not to his knowledge. I suggested that it was highly unlikely that it
didn't. What about LC as a whole? Not as far as he knew, but he would
check and get back to me. Did he know what was going to happen with
the forms we had filled out? No.
As my friends and I huddled around a microfilm reader/printer with
the boxes of film we had requested as samples of what LC had
advertised as the 'secret archives of the American Communist Party
(sic)' in its press release, we marvelled at the way in which a
microfilmed 'archive' made research about as difficult as possible
and that one lost the sense of the connection of things and their
context. Finding the provisional finding aid of very little
provisional help, we sampled parts of the collection just to get a
sense of it. This I will save for some other occasion. But suffice it
to say I was more convinced than ever that it belonged in its
original and copy in the hands of the organization whose activities
generated it, especially provided they were willing to make it
appropriately accessible (as they were).
At some point a friendly reference librarian comes over and says she
understands I had some questions about policy.
I told her, indeed, I was interested in seeing the patron records
confidentiality policies either of the unit or of the LC as a whole.
I explained that I was a librarian active in ALA and that many fellow
librarians were concerned with confidentiality of patron records
especially in the context of the new USA PATRIOT Act, thinking that
would jog her into action. Puzzled, she said she would look into it.
A half hour later she returned to say they seemed to have no such
policies in print, but she would take my contact information and get
back to me about it.
I thought it was the kind of thing almost any library had at the
reference desk or certainly could produce relatively easily upon
request. I was wrong, at least about the LC.
Finishing up, we returned the material, bid the staff good-by, and
reminded them they were going to get back to me with the answer to my
inquiry. Within a half and hour we managed to find our way to the
place we had checked all our worldly goods and then some time later
to the street, feeling relieved to have emerged from the dingy
labyrinth and breathing relatively fresh air again.
Weeks passed and from my office in NYC, not having received any
message from the microfilm department's staff or management in answer
to my simple patron inquiry, I e-mailed them several times reminding
them. They never responded.
However, I finally got a formal letter from an Assistant Legal
Counsel of the LC. How high up this simple query had gone!
With some irritation I was told not what their patron records
confidentiality policy was but what their access policy was. It was
apparently not something which staff or management seemed to know or
patrons likely to interested in. Furthermore, it was not what I asked
about either! I explained in a response that I was interested in the
patron records confidentiality policy, which was not coterminous
with the apparently well-hidden access policy.
The Assistant Legal Counsel of LC responded that the question of
confidentiality was covered in the US Code of Federal Regulations and
I could find that... at the library.
Well, it took a highly-paid lawyer to answer (however misguidedly,
inadequately and inappropriately, at that) a question that any
reference librarian should have been able to answer. I guess that's
Washington, DC for you or one of the things that makes the Library of
Congress so special.