N.J. proposed budget could undermine historic role of State Archives in records management

Guest blog:

Opinion from Professor Stanley N. Katz, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs

It’s D-Day, my friends!

Historians working in New Jersey, whether or not they are scholars of state history, should be concerned by a political development that threatens the integrity of our state archival record.  Governor Chris Christie’s proposed FY 2013 budget bill contains a provision which, if not removed prior to July 1, will remove records management from the oversight of archivists and lodge it in the Department of the Treasury.  This may sound like an insignificant bureaucratic adjustment, but in fact it would undermine the historic role of the State Archives in identifying and preserving the historical record of our state government.

For nearly a century, the state archival function, like most of its sister agencies in other states, has had the responsibility both for creating records management policies (which identify those public records we need to retain) and for maintaining repositories in which those records can be preserved and accessed over the long term.  DARM has carried out both of these crucial functions since the Division was established by the Legislature as Title 47 in 1953. (The Division of Archives and Records Management [NJDARM] is New Jersey’s public records authority. — eds.)

The core of the problem is how to ensure that records management policies will continue to be created and implemented by trained professionals, archivists.  Such professionals are not part of the political process, and make judgments on a nonpartisan, disinterested basis.  They are uniquely qualified to determine which records need to be preserved and made available, when appropriate, to the public and to members of the state government.  Under the proposed transfer to the Treasury, however, it is not clear that this crucial archival function can be carried out professionally and nonpolitically.  That is the crux of the matter, since it was the core intention of Title 47 in professionalizing records management in New Jersey.

There may well be administrative efficiencies of one sort or another that can be introduced into New Jersey’s records management system, and all historians should welcome reforms of that sort.  But our core commitment is to the long-term integrity of the documentary record of the state, and to the role of our colleagues, the archivists, in identifying and preserving that record.

I call upon our representatives in the legislature to object to the provision in the budget that would covertly make such a damaging change to the structure and function of DARM.

Professor Stanley N. Katz
Director, Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
(former President, Organization of American Historians; President, American Society for Legal History; Vice President, Research, American Historical Association)