Friday, April 03, 2009

Document Transition

We heard all about the transition recently as Barack Obama took over the presidency from George W. Bush. At Prologue you can read about how NARA is involved with the White House transition as they take control of all the presidential documents:
While NARA is the agency tasked with moving the incumbent President's records and artifacts, other government agencies provide assistance and work on different parts of the transition. The move is done in close conjunction and cooperation with many White House and vice presidential staff and offices, and also with the Department of Defense (DoD). Because all records and artifacts that are moved before the end of the presidency are still in the President's or Vice President's control, NARA must receive White House approval to start moving records as early as possible.

The planning for a move is most sensitive when a President is defeated after one term. A President running for reelection is not interested in having his staff work with NARA to plan for a transition. After defeat, there are fewer than three months to complete the move. In the case of a two-term President who is leaving office, we can begin moving records as soon as the temporary library site is ready to receive the records, which is usually sometime in late fall before the election. It is crucial that NARA, with DoD assistance, begin these moves months in advance, because the volume and complexity of these moves cannot be handled in the last few days or weeks of a presidential administration.

NARA works with White House and vice presidential counsels, the White House Office of Records Management, the National Security Council, the White House Gifts Office, and other White House offices and the Office of the Vice President to receive approval to move early and to coordinate on what records and artifacts can move when. Additionally, throughout the presidential administration, these offices have worked to establish initial control and arrangement over the records and artifacts, provide preliminary descriptions at the folder, box, or artifact level, and to ready these materials for eventual transfer to NARA.

At the outset of a presidential administration, NARA begins preparing for the eventual move of records by offering the White House courtesy storage for the artifacts and records that do not need to be physically stored in the White House compound. Courtesy storage, offered to Presidents and Vice Presidents, means that the records are in the physical possession of NARA until legal custody transfers to the Archivist of the United States. The incumbent President and Vice President maintain legal custody over the records and artifacts during their terms.

While the records are in courtesy storage, NARA's Presidential Materials Staff provides reference service to the incumbent and returns the records to the White House, if requested, in a one-hour turnaround time, 24 hours a day. The records, gifts, and historical materials in courtesy storage are made available only to the White House as requested by designated Offices for reference. Boxes of textual records in courtesy storage remain sealed while in NARA's physical possession. NARA's Presidential Materials curatorial staff stores the artifacts, ensures that museum standards are met, and assists the White House on artifact loans. NARA's courtesy storage of records and artifacts significantly reduces the volume of material that needs to be transferred from the White House during the final months of an administration.

This article also covers the specific moves of the presidential papers since FDR (when NARA became ofificially involved):
A very unusual move occurred when President Nixon resigned in August of 1974. At the time he resigned, his presidential papers were estimated to consist of approximately 42 million pages. Shortly after the resignation, Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act to seize his presidential materials, particularly the Watergate tapes, and place them in the National Archives. Nixon sued the government, claiming that these were his private property, as had been the case for every prior President since George Washington. The ongoing litigation over who owned and controlled the Nixon materials was finally resolved in the government's favor in 1977 by the Supreme Court.

The White House materials were moved to a storage area underneath a staircase of the Old Executive Office Building (OEOB) and stayed there for many months, with little being done. Few of the Ford White House staff even realized that the Nixon materials were actually being stored in the OEOB. Finally, in 1975, the materials were moved in a military caravan to Suitland, Maryland, and then moved again to the 18th level of the National Archives Building when it was considered secure enough to hold them.

Nixon's materials are now in both the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California, which the National Archives accepted from a private foundation last year, and at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, where all of Nixon's materials were held until NARA took over the Yorba Linda facility. Eventually, all the Nixon collection will be moved to the California library.

For us presidential historians, this is an interesting article on how all these documents get from the White House to their final resting place.

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