Interview with the archivist regarding access


I asked Mark Rosenzweig, librarian and archivist at the Reference Center for Marxist Studies, the following questions on November 17, 2002. His answers are below.

  • I've noticed that a lot of people, even quite liberal people, when they hear about the dispute between CPUSA and LC, say "Well, maybe it's best if the papers are at LC, because that means they will be accessible to people. The CPUSA might try to restrict access." Is there any basis for this?

  • Is the reason for it residual anti-communism? And if so, how would you answer someone who says that there is a good reason to expect the CPUSA to behave like the Soviets?

  • I spoke to an historian of American Communism who told me that she was aware of someone who DID have difficulty accessing materials at the RCMS some years ago. You weren't the archivist then. At some point in the future, someone else will be the archivist. How can you guarantee that the next custodian of the documents have policies as open as yours?

  • Do you feel that RCMS is being held to a higher standard of accessibility than other archives by some people?

  • What is the state of the archive's accessibility at LC?

- Rory Litwin (webmaster)

>I've noticed that a lot of people, even quite liberal people, when
>they hear about the dispute between CPUSA and LC, say "Well, maybe it's best
>if the papers are at LC, because that means they will be accessible to
>people.  The CPUSA might try to restrict access."  Is there any basis for
>this?

There are several observations I would like to make on this:

1) The LC holds many archival series with restrictions on access. So the implicit idea of "completely open access" at LC is entirely a figment of the imagination. That is not to say that the practice is a violation of accepted archival practice. It is just to indicate that archival principles do not prevent research institutions from actively protecting material under their care according to various stipulations and legal restrictions, while at the same time providing or striving to provide the highest degree of access permissable and achievable in each case. This is the norm for personal papers, institutional papers etc. in research archives.

2) There is nothing which would have, in principle, prevented the CPUSA or the RCMS from agreeing to the depositing of this series of papers at LC with the following of proper procedures and recognition! I would even gladly have worked on a cooperative arrangement, with LC, based on mutual recognition, as would my predecessors, the first of whom since the founding of the RCMS was actually a Fellow of the Society of American Archivists, Miriam Crawford, a distinguished veteran archivist.

3) Only  the aggressive hostility of LC's players in this sordid affair, refusing any recognition of the CPUSA's legitimate rights in this matter, and the LC's legitimating and taking advantage of the pilfering of their papers by the RSA (which even if they interpreted differently would STILL necessitate consultation with the CPUSA as the existing, generating agency) prevented collegial and professional relations to allow for a reasonable and mutually satisfactiory arrangement. This was further undelined by the LC's utter refusal to accept the SAA's own offer, after much research into the issues involved and recognition of legitimate concerns, of mediation between the CPUSA/RCMS and LC.

4) Interestingly, the RCMS, before I was hired, even when it was maintained only by a elderly founding member with no professional training or staff, cooperated with LC on many occasions, donating material liberally, helping to locate material for their acquisition etc, and NEVER thought of LC as a partisan 'foe' who would rip them off in the way, under James Billington, John Earl Haynes has done. The previous management PRIDED itself on cooperating with LC and assumed reciprocal good will!

5) I admit to have been rather surprised myself at their generosity and was somewhat  skeptical of their assumption of reciprocal recognition under the present administration, although they were surprised at my doubts. The Board of the RCMS, with several founding members still active, harbored, until that time, no ill-feelings towards LC and several had cooperated personally with LC on material related to their own activities as political/cultural figures.

THe RCMS was, indeed, set up, twenty two years ago, to provide better access to CPUSA-related materials to interetsted parties. If someone says they had 'difficulty' with the RCMS in getting what they wanted, there is no reason to assume it had anything to do with the RCMS' policy or absence of the RCMS' best attempts to satisfy their scholarly needs. People sometimes simply assume that the material "must be there" and that they are being foiled.

6) The RCMS is not the LC; it does not have its enormous resources. That does not mean that it has no right to exist and provide archival access to the papers of the organization whose resources it has been asked to maintain! That is one of the most disturbing aspects of the undercurrent of "maybe it's all for the best"! Maybe it's all for the best if the papers of every organization are owned by the government and can be used at the whim of the government: that's the implication of the acceptance of this as a "fait accompli".

7) The fact is that the RCMS always intended to abide by the best practices of the archives profession to the greatest extent possible. Any experience to the contrary was a deviation from that, something which could happen at any institution.

8) Under my supervision we reaffirmed in practice and in policy, the RCMS' intent to work towards realizing these standards fully and effectively.

The RCMS board obviously recognizes the need for professional suoervision of their information resources providing public access, so that, if I have codified and affirmed the principles of librarianship, curatorship and archival management, one has every reason to assume that my succesor will be someone who does so as well. One cannot realistically guarantee that LC's policies might not change for the worse under changed political circumstances, especially as their treatment of the CPUSA in this matter implies an underlying disregard for ethical and legal principles underlying proper archival policy and practice. If we can't assume that about LC, why ask me to give some sworn oath about what the RCMS will do after I am no longer in charge? I operate on the assumption of the continuity of the access policies I have defined, and that is to abide by the standards of the SAA as regards access.

> >Is the reason for it residual anti-communism?  And if so, how would you
>answer someone who says that there is a good reason to expect the CPUSA to
>behave like the Soviets?

1) I believe that Mssrs. Billington and Haynes have made it clear that they have an ideological agenda, but that seems to be one that's 'OK' and about which one needn't speak.

That agenda was based on a historiographical orientation which sees the entire history of US Communism in all its manifestations as nothing but the projection of Soviet policy, especially espionage. This is an extremist position which had been largely debunked and is, in actuality, in no way substantively validated by their attempts to use preferential access to previously unavailable materials in a highly partisan manner (e.g.in J.E. Haynes' selective and biased publication of materials in the "Annals of Communism" series published by Yale University Press) .

2) They have allowed themselves to benefit personally, professionally and finally institutionally from restricted acccess, for almost a decade prior to their 'making it available', to materials in the former Soviet Union to realize this agenda and to profit from it.

They have been involved in projects whose one-sided and extreme premises with regards to the CPUSA are obvious but somehow impolite to discuss, witness - not the least - the sensationalist press-announcement of the "opening of the 'secret archives' of the CPUSA" in Russia and the prejudicial presentation of material in violation of any attempt at scholarly 'oobjectivity' and their refusal to even recognize the continued existence of the very organization the alleged 'discovery' of whose papers they flaunt as 'of special historical importance'!

So they, professional anti-Communists themselves, have encouraged this revival of Cold War anti-Communist suspicion on the part of the research community, not only with unscholarly impunity from criticism, but with personal benefit to themselves. It is worth noting that the archivist, Haynes, is the editor of the 'most prestigious' and profitable publishing venture in the field. The archivist is now also the editor of the only journal in the field. This is a conflict of interest the implications of which I won't even go into now. I hope it is apparent to all to some degree.

That the research community is so dependent on LC makes any objection to the authority of LC's communications and claims  a matter to which reserachers 'competing' with each other in the narrow fields of study involved loath to get in bad with the arbiters of success and failure. The violation of the rights of the organization the study of which is their bread and butter is apparently of little coincern in the present academic environment, certainly something people who avail themselves of its fruits are not rushing to consider (although I believe it will ultimately reflect very badly on them to have compromised their principles)

>I spoke to an historian of American communism who told me that she was aware
>of someone who DID have difficulty accessing materials at the RCMS some
>years ago.  You weren't the archivist then.  At some point in the future,
>someone else will be the archivist.  How can you guarantee that the next
>custodian of the documents have policies as open as yours?

see above

>
>Do you feel that RCMS is being held to a higher standard of accessibility
>than other archives by some people?

Yes. If the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the Mormon church, had some of their papers turn up in Russia after the 'regime change'and LC 'discovered' that, I daresay they would be in communication with the Mormons' chief librarian and other executive offices and not assuume that they had or that the Russians had the right to the material.

>What is the state of the archive's accessibility at LC?

This has undoubtedly  changed due to their outrageous decision to allow and/or faciltate private publication, by a for-profit firm called IDC, of the entire set of material (under the 'editorship'(?) of John Earl Haynes!). The set has been advertised for sale for an unbelievable $34,000 a copy!

When I went to LC to view the microfilm with several people as witnesses, including one fluent in Russian and a graduate of Princeton in Soviet studies with no affiliation to the CPUSA or the RCMS, we each had to fill out forms stipulating which reels we wanted to view and requiring giving more personal information than one would have wished to give for only looking at microfilm! We THEN had to fill out another form specifically for this series agreeing to stipulations by the RSA (!) about copying, use and prohibition of reproduction of the whole and restructions on the use of large parts.


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Last update, November 2002. Webmaster: rcms@libr.org.