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 rights.

As the Director of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies (RCMS) (http://marxistlibrary.org) 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 patron.

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 circumstances

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.


Home
April 2002. Webmaster: rcms@libr.org.