All the President’s Email

Richard Ovenden

In the New Yorker a couple of years ago, the biographer Robert Caro described his first visit to the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas in 1976:

In front of me was a broad, tall marble staircase. At its top was a glass wall four storeys high. Behind the glass, on each of the four storeys, were rows of tall, red boxes – 175 rows across, each row six boxed high – with, on the front of each box, a gold circle that was a replica, I was to learn, of the presidential seal. As I climbed the stairs, there came into view more boxes, long lines of them stretching back into the gloom as far as I could see.

As he entered the reading room, the immensity of the task that faced him, as Johnson’s biographer, began to dawn: forty thousand boxes stood in wait, with 32 million pages in them. ‘I had a bad feeling,’ he writes, as he remembered the advice he had been given at the start of his career: ‘Turn every page.’

Since Joe Biden’s victory last November, there has been no shortage of speculation on the nature of the next presidential library. Will we see the opening of the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library Casino and Resort in Las Vegas? Others suggested a garden shed or a prison library. One proposed name for it resonated strongly with me: ‘Bodleian Total Landscaping’.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 requires the preservation of an administration’s papers by the National Archives and Records Administration. The process that led eventually to the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, which encouraged presidents to donate their historical materials to the government, was begun by FDR in the late 1930s. Preserving their papers by law, it was hoped, would help ensure integrity in the highest office of the land. In Britain the 1958 Public Records Act sought to extend the principle to ‘every person responsible for public records of every description’, who are required to ‘make arrangements for the selection of those records which ought to be permanently preserved’.

The papers of the 18th and 19th-century presidents had mixed fates: some of them survived in reasonably good order (and many are preserved by the Library of Congress), others much less so, and it was the gaps in the historical record that in part prompted FDR to take action. The Herbert Hoover Library was the first to be set up under the new system, in 1962, in West Branch, Iowa, where Hoover was born. Eighteen more have followed, sometimes situated in the president’s birthplace, often on university campuses in their home states, like LBJ’s is in Austin.

The presidential papers themselves are the property of the American people. The private papers, documenting their lives before and after their terms of office, are private property, but are normally added to the collections, to maintain the archival record of an entire life. In most cases artefacts (clothes, furniture, medals) are also included. Museum displays are a key part of the libraries’ role: most people, often on school trips or organised visits, come to see the exhibitions and learn about the presidents through the interpreted displays, lectures and other events.

But politicians’ papers are not only historical documents. They are also repositories of legal and evidential facts, as became clear in 1974 when Richard Nixon brokered an agreement that allowed him to retain control of thousands of hours of tape recordings. Congress was not happy. Later that year they passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act to regain control of the tapes. Nixon challenged the legislation in the courts, arguing that technology of this kind was not part of the national record but private property. In 1977 his appeal was rejected by the Supreme Court, and the National Archives began processing the tapes.

The historical record of an individual’s life today is in hybrid form, on paper and in other media, mostly digital. This poses major challenges for historians as well as archivists. Emails have replaced much of the paper correspondence that occupies so many of the boxes in LBJ’s archive. The technology adds a further layer of problems: the use of private email accounts, held on privately controlled servers, was the undoing of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016.

A modern archive contains a myriad other document types, from spreadsheets for budget analysis to digital images. Where politicians in the past used newspaper columns, pamphlets, leaflets and posters to express their ideas to a large, geographically distributed audience, today’s political figures also put a huge effort into exploiting social media. Their posts may be deleted later, whether a few minutes or several years after their original appearance, potentially distorting the public record. Donald Trump’s habit of deletion prompted several ‘activist archivist’ groups to set up online archives of his social media presence, independent of the originating platforms, so that his public utterances could be scrutinised. According to Factbase, Trump sent out nearly 150,000 tweets and deleted 1382 of them. He had more than 88 million followers by the time he was banned from the platform at the end of his term in office.

The NARA has archived the tweets sent by Trump and his staff from institutional accounts, such as @POTUS and @WhiteHouse, which have now passed to the Biden administration. They have also archived Trump’s White House website and a whole array of other sites associated with the administration (as they did with the Clinton, Bush and Obama-era sites). On top of this is a host of paper and electronic records that emerged from the White House, although rumours of the destruction of records in the weeks leading up to Trump’s departure prompted several organisations to sue the White House for breach of federal laws.

The archivists in the US acted with impressive speed and scale to establish an archival presence for this mass of diverse material. They were able to do so because of the Presidential Records Act, but also because of the attention they gave to the issue, seeing it as of prime importance for the functioning of an open society as well as for the historical record.

There is no equivalent to the PRA in the UK, and the National Archives here have not, historically, seen the prime ministerial archives as their concern. Prime ministers’ papers are mixed up: ‘official’ papers come under the purview of the 1958 Public Records Act and the scrutiny of the Cabinet Office, while ‘private’ papers do not. The convention has been to allow the two halves of the archival record to remain together. At the Bodleian I am responsible for the papers of seven prime ministers. Churchill College, Cambridge has a further five, and the others are in various repositories around the country. The state does not directly contribute to their preservation or accessibility.

Unlike the Presidential Archives, there are no public funds for cataloguing, conserving and providing access to them. These tasks are hard enough with vast quantities of analogue material (the Heath Archive runs to 4500 boxes), but political archives from the past thirty years now have a significant digital component, adding to the cost and complexity of the archival responsibility. If this were not burdensome enough, the papers sometimes have to be bought to prevent their dispersal. The Bodleian had to purchase the Heath papers from his estate (with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund), and Churchill College bought Winston Churchill’s personal papers from the family with one of the Heritage Lottery Fund’s first grants – a whopping £13 million in 1995.

The current focus on the personal messages of senior figures in government, including the prime minister, highlights the critical importance of these records for the health of our democracy. The preservation of the public record is part of a system that holds public figures to account, and tries to provide a legal framework for their integrity while in office. The decisions taken by Lyndon Johnson on the Civil Rights Act, for example, continue to have a profound impact on American society. The communications sent on private messaging services by British ministers and officials fall squarely under the purview of the 1958 Public Records Act, but the Civil Service lacks the will and Parliament lacks the teeth to enforce compliance. How will the official enquiry into the handling of the pandemic be able to determine the facts of what happened without a full record of the decision-making process, as so much communication between the key players was conducted on Whats App and Signal? Without change, historians of the future will also have a gap in the record. Instead of turning every page, they will be thwarted in their attempts to click on every email or text message.


  • 27 May 2021 at 12:17pm
    Simon Wood says:
    The new exhibition "Curiouser and Curiouser" at the V&A is a good starting point for assessing the style and actions of the current government. Under the lens of Lewis Carroll, the characters, edicts and decisions begin to make sense, that is to say, our jab success is the reverse, upside down, of the kerfuffle.

    Europe and the world may once more look to Britain and laugh but also reflect. It may be nonsense, but is it British nonsense.

    Lost electronic communications and incinerated hard drives mean the need to read between the lines is an even more important skill.

    And after all, how much do we really need to "know"?