by Rick Barry,
This paper was originally written and published as a book review in Archives and Manuscripts, the journal of the Australian Society of Archivists, November 1998, Vol. 26, No. 2, p. 424. Subsequently, I have developed it into an essay that also raises questions for the archives and records management community, policy makers and for society more generally. This is that subsequent and otherwise unpublished essay. It contains both the full text of the original review and my own commentary on some of the important issues that the book raises.
The book: Unbridled Power: Inside the Secret Culture of the IRS, by Shelley L. Davis, with a foreword by Mary Matalin, New York: HarperBusiness, 1997, 284 pp. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-88730-829-5. Available through Amazon.com, which at the time of writing assigned to it the “ Avg. Customer Rating” .
R.B., March 2001.
Are you afflicted by archives and records management (ARM) literature that you can’t read in bed? Do the discourses of theoreticians make you sleepy? Do the writings of ‘policy wonks’ make you yawn? Do you get the nods in conference presentations? Do you long for some ARM literature that lights a fire in your belly?
Search no more. Here is one that you can read in bed – and not to fall asleep with. Indeed, there is the risk that your pillow partner might wonder if you are reading a salacious book covered with a respectable, professional looking jacket.
Shelley Davis has done us all a favor – and, so far as I can see, with little more than a “Thanks for sharing” from the archives profession and the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). She feels her work and book tried to elevate both NARA and the profession. She has done something that I don’t know anyone else has cared enough to do: observed – from the outside looking in – the recordkeeping function and community at work in a powerful government agency, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the agency charged with the collection of Federal income taxes.
Davis says that she wrote about what she saw the way she saw it. The story isn’t pretty. She uses real names and real dates. According to Ms. Davis, no one has felt her story to be untrue or sufficiently inaccurate to sue or even threaten to sue her for libel or defamation of character – even in the litigious United States. The book does not suggest that what she observed at IRS is representative. On the contrary, it was the sharp contrast to the way in which she had become accustomed to serious recordkeeping in the Pentagon that made her realize just how unrepresentative was her experience at the IRS. She uses this story to warn us what can happen when virtually no one is watching the store or able or willing to do something about it – agency managers, archival organizations responsible for receiving related archives, legislative oversight committees, professional associations and public advocacy groups.
Certainly this book should be of great interest to people in the United States – ARM professionals, public officials, legislators and other elected officials, and a public concerned about accountability and human rights. But why should anyone outside of the U.S. care about such matters or wish to read this book? Because the issues it gives rise to, the thoughts it should make us all pause to consider, are relevant in most countries where there exist powerful government organizations charged with carrying out such functions as intelligence, criminal justice, tax collection, social services, collection of census or other sensitive personal information, such as social services.
These are organizations that, in democracies, are typically the concern of legislative oversight bodies because they can be among the most intrusive into the personal lives of ordinary citizens and the attendant dangers inherent in their potential abuse of power. This book is about one such agency of the U.S. Federal Government – the IRS, an agency of the Treasury Department. The book is about one such agency and is told by an experienced government historian who was no stranger to recordkeeping.
When such organizations – in whatever country – fly under the radar of oversight bodies and allow recordkeeping to be carried out by ill-trained or uncaring staff, the potentially damaging impact on human rights and accountability under the law can threaten the underpinnings of government by law. It is even more so the case when they cause legislation to come about that can then be interpreted in ways that exempt them from the other laws and professional norms specifically established to govern proper recordkeeping. It is all the more ironic if this is done in the name of protecting the confidentiality of personal information.
This is an issue appearing again in the new Millennium with respect to e-commerce and e-business legislation, such as the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act (UETA) and Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA) about which ARM professionals have been virtually silent. Yet, definitions of what is a record in the e-business/e-commerce environment are being crafted into legislation by attorneys with little or no knowledge of recordkeeping or involvement of recordkeeping professionals. When so fashioned, it should not be surprising that such definitions are likely to reflect the demands and conveniences of business interests rather than accepted professional standards. From what I can gather from colleagues in other countries, this is not unique to the U.S.
As the old saying goes, there are two things in life that no one escapes: death and taxes. The U.S. has no monopoly on either. Nor does it have a monopoly on government organizations that abuse their power. And it is not alone in having such organizations that purposely, or through executive neglect, turn recordkeeping practices into enablers of such abuses – no more than Australia is alone in its “Heiner case”, or Canada or France in their “Tainted Blood” cases. Having practiced in countries in most continents of the world, from the Americas to Europe, Africa and Australia, I have observed and heard about all too many such cases – again illustrating the international relevance of this book.
Just as we find ARM problems to be in many ways international in character, we also find our professionals crossing boundaries much more commonly these days to share professional problems and experiences and to seek underlying common solutions. This has always been the case in the International Council on Archives but is increasingly the case in national professional groups. We observe this in many ways:
Why is this? Because, like everything else, ARM professions increasingly are seeing the challenges and opportunities of global politics, economics and communications and are willing to take good solutions wherever they find them.
Without revealing too much about “who did it,” the basics can be briefly summarized by drawing from political pundit Mary Matalin’s foreword to the book:
“Shelley Davis says she isn’t as afraid for herself as she is for the country, unless the IRS is reformed, and reformed fast. … This is a person whose only crime was trying to do her job, as best she could. Part of that job involved telling her bosses, ‘Heads up, guys, but do you know we’re breaking the law?’
“As she reveals, the IRS routinely destroys its own records. That’s against federal law. And the problem with breaking the Federal Records Act is, as Shelley says, that without records, there is no history. Without records, there is no accountability.”
Davis arrived on board the IRS in 1988 as the first and, until now, last IRS Historian, full of the challenges of the new job, but also failing to fully appreciate until it was too late that this was no Department of Defense, where she had been a historian for the previous nine years, when it came to recordkeeping. This naiveté was very soon replaced by the cold light of daily experience. When she first visited IRS for the job interview, she noticed that, very much unlike the Pentagon, the corridors were barren of any sense of history in the form of remembrances or icons of the past – portraits, pictures, framed copies of key documents, sculptures, models or other tokens of respect to the organization’s visions, traditions, leaders, ideas. Her initial instincts that this organization didn’t have a sense of national history or its place within that history or even, of its own history, were to be painfully confirmed in subsequent days and years.
Davis’ next hint came after taking up her new post when the head of the records management organization, someone who had been transferred to that position from her earlier job as a personnel officer, told her that she would have to wait a couple of weeks before she could meet with her because she was just too busy. Davis reports that, when the two did finally meet, her invitation to cooperate was icily received. This was a harbinger of things to come. More importantly, she found great difficulty in getting answers to simple questions: Where are the records? How many are in the National Archives? How often do you send records to NARA? Are there places in the building I should look to find records?
The picture that emerged, following visits to NARA and discussions with the NARA appraisal archivist for IRS, was that IRS had been successfully ignoring for decades the apparently all-too-private NARA requests for the transfer of records of archival value. It was explained that NARA simply did not have the legal teeth to prevent IRS or any other agency of the government from doing otherwise. If anything, things had gotten worse over the years rather than better. There were independent revelations to Congressional officials that IRS staff frequently violated the privacy of citizens by viewing the records of citizens who were not part of their authorized cases at all – neighbors, Hollywood celebrities, political figures, etc. Congress heard and tightened up the Internal Revenue Code.
In 1976, Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code was revised by Congress to include severe punitive measures for anyone found to be misusing confidential taxpayer information. However, this change provided IRS a new “6103 defense” upon which to deny access to, or accessioning of, IRS policy and administrative records including records of its Commissioners that contained no information that could be traced back to any individual taxpayer. Nor would it disclose records on policy and procedural matters regarding how individual audits were selected and conducted, or that would show whether or not any were politically directed from outside the IRS, even where taxpayer identification was not at issue. Moreover, if the intelligence community makes use of records redaction practices to protect intelligence methods and sources, couldn’t the IRS do the same where taxpayer identity might be at issue?
Consequentially, access to non-taxpayer records – even those that had been released to journalists and researchers prior to 1976 – were denied. One of the few IRS records Davis found at NARA was a refund letter to President Lincoln’ estate informing that he had overpaid his taxes. IRS contended that, under 6103, it would be illegal to permit public access to that document.
Davis reports how, for seven years, she tried to change all of that by working through the system until her options were reduced to either living with what she knew was a very bad situation or becoming, very much out of her character, a whistle blower. She wrote a report summarizing the situation and warning IRS management that the agency was operating in contradiction to the law. She sent the report to the Archivist. She received a ‘Thank you’ note that did not address the substantive issues she had raised in her report. When the options closed down, she finally resigned her position in December 1995. With Government doors closed to her, she subsequently turned to writing this book.
ARM practitioners, as well as professional organizations and educators in these fields, in countries the world over will hear messages that may sound like echoes reflecting off their own societies and governments. The paragraphs below summarize some of the important questions this book gives rise to and lessons that this reviewer learned from reading Davis’ book.
From the most basic organizational standpoint, how are powerful public organizations run? What are their key internal policies, practices and decisions? What deliberations are behind them and how do they change over time? How is accountability assured? How do legitimate overseers, investigators or researchers shine light into the inner workings of such organizations in the absence of access to authentic, reliable, complete and well-maintained trustworthy records?
Especially when records of continuing value are regularly destroyed without ever having been appraised, scheduled, and accessioned or – where schedules do exist – disposed of in a manner that violates such schedules or related laws? That is the stuff of this book. Preservation is a hot topic in the ARM community. We worry greatly, as we should, about continued access to records in the face of technological obsolescence. We conclude: we should concern ourselves not simply with the technological longevity of physical storage media on which records are maintained, but also with whether the technological tools (hardware and software) will be available in future to access and make such records understandable even if the media survives.
Davis’ book does not address those issues. Rather, it addresses the prior socio-organizational issue: are we losing access to important records because they are not created in the first place or because they are being destroyed illegally or improperly through neglect or poor management before technology ever becomes an issue? As important as technological issues are, our first concern should be to ensure that appropriate documentary evidence of what has transpired is produced in the form of trustworthy records. Only when both the socio-organizational and technological issues are properly addressed can we ensure that records are worthy of supporting the accountability aims of an organization or society.
Who oversees how well and responsibly organizations such as the IRS are run when even presidents, prime ministers, legislators and legislative oversight committees fear that looking too deeply into such organizations might put them at personal risk of retaliation, even if they are ‘clean’ in their own tax dealings? Davis recounts in her book how she was threatened with arrest in the lobby of the IRS building on her last day at work when she was falsely accused of possessing two building passes. Recent Congressional investigations into the workings of the IRS, at which she testified, revealed that even some congressmen who had earlier called for closer examination of the agency indicated that they had subsequently been targeted.
Archivists, professional associations and academic leaders, as well as public policy makers and the public at large need to be alert to the crucial importance of proper archives and records management legislation at it governs all levels of government and the private sector. What are the leading legislative models for the organization of national, state and local archives and the appointment of their archivists (civil service, political appointment, reporting relationships)? How can such models help to minimize the incidences of ARM professionals being placed in adversarial or non-consequential positions vis-à-vis the societies they serve? Why has the subject of organization arrangements and alternatives for national, state/provincial and local archives only very recently and seldom been addressed in research projects, professional conferences and journals? Is it seen to be unimportant? Is it because such organizations are typically the creatures of very old legislation that cannot be changed in the short term?
Recent examples of the recognition of organization as a critical public policy issue include the “English Report” on the organization of the National Archives and Library of Canada. The appointment of the National Archivist of Canada in 1999 was delayed for a year or more until that study was completed and acted upon.
A similar study was recently completed in New Zealand, again as a prior condition for the appointment of a new National Archivist of New Zealand that was pending at the time of this writing. The position of the National Archives of Australia and the National Archives of New Zealand (renamed Archives New Zealand in 2000) were elevated as a result of these studies. The theme of the 1997 National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA) conference was organizational change and included presentations on organizational studies and issues by representatives of the U.S. and Canadian national archives.
In some cases, the national archives is a party to or the subject of litigation thus limiting, sometimes for several years, the national archivist from speaking out on ARM topics of central importance to the profession. In others, where there is a strong tradition or legal system of separation of powers at different levels of government, national archivists are reluctant to speak out on ARM matters of even widely published cases of egregious abuse of recordkeeping practices at lower levels of government on the grounds that such cases are out of their jurisdictions. However good the reasoning, the message is that there is a lack of a national professional or ethical compass for the ARM profession.
In still other cases, particularly in some developing countries, national archivists and national archives organizations are not given the status of a national archives as such and are very low on the government totem pole, organizationally and in terms of seniority of the director’s position. In all these cases, it makes for a situation in which the national archivist and national archives organization have a very limited role in providing leadership for the profession in their countries.
Particularly when the staff of national archives makes up a major element of national professional associations, they may act as a dampening influence on the potential for the professional association to fill the leadership gap for the profession. In countries where neither the national archivist nor the national professional association are, for whatever reasons, fulfilling a central leadership role for the profession – for example monitoring for unethical practices, as we expect other professions to do – where do we expect professional leadership to come from?
The International Council on Archives’ CITRA group could provide a great service to the international ARM community by sponsoring some scholarly research into organizational models at the national level, but has shied away from any such role. Similarly, the NAGARA and like organizations in other countries could perform a similar service at the state/provincial and local levels.
And what about the records of business organizations, educational and non-profit institutions? How adequate are the laws that govern their recordkeeping practices beyond the requirements of tax laws and requirements of regulatory agencies? What protections are afforded records managers in the private sector who are pressured to dispose of records in an unethical manner? Who provides the professional compass for this group?
In a recent interview by an author writing about recordkeeping for a Chief Information Officers audience, I was asked: “Could you provide a checklist for CIO’s to implement a retention schedule in the absence of a records management professional or unit?” The focus was obviously on meeting minimal retention requirements of recordkeeping laws/regulations without any consideration for where retention fit into a broader recordkeeping system or the importance of taking a professional approach to such a system.
(My response was that I would not suggest any such easy-bake checklist; although I did offer a 10-step tool for assessing the state of recordkeeping in the organization.)
Most democratic countries have specific laws governing proper recordkeeping. However, they also have many other laws governing other aspects of government and providing statutory authority for the existence and mission of government agencies. ARM professionals and legislators need to be alert to 6103-type changes in laws that govern individual agencies such as those in the intelligence, social services, tax and census collection areas to ensure that such laws do not provide improper hatches through which agencies can escape overarching recordkeeping laws. They equally need to ensure that designated ARM officials are empowered to deal with agencies that ignore recordkeeping laws, or to ratchet the matter up to higher authority and the public as necessary to bring about compliance.
One has to wonder how it is that NARA has been virtually powerless for the preceding 30 years to change practices at the IRS. Do we need legislative changes to give our national archives greater power to invoke assessments of agency recordkeeping on demand? Should the national and state archivists be legally established as the final authority within their executive branches for the handling of recordkeeping disputes? Should those archivists be required by law to formally notify the President or governor in cases of agency non-compliance; and, if nothing happens within a limited time period, to notify the appropriate justice department and legislative oversight bodies and advertise the situation in the press? Might the very presence of such laws help to avoid really bad situations before they erupt?
What about whistleblower and Freedom of Information legislation? Might they be better related to recordkeeping? Do our professionals tend to look down on whistleblowers and, if so, why? Shouldn’t ARM professionals be in the forefront of whistleblower protection legislation? Might such legislation not afford a needed umbrella for those among us who have the intestinal fortitude to stand up for proper recordkeeping practices when ethics and sound practices are being trashed within their own organizations?
Periodically, we hear discussion on the various ARM lists of the tensions between archivists and records managers, between archivists and historians, and between archivists and information management and technology specialists. This book reminds us of the vital importance and changing nature of professional relationships, putting aside our professional differences and genuinely working toward more integration of these related functions.
This does not have to mean some kind of homogenized diet drink in which the identities of the parts are lost in the mix. Rather, the salad is the better metaphor, where the individual components are easily identified but a common dressing unites them and the resulting combination is something better than the individual parts.
It not is possible to integrate these functions and groups by policy and organizational means while still maintaining the special perspective and skills that each brings to the table? Should the professional relationships among these groups be revisited? Should ARM professionals prepare themselves both educationally and career-wise in ways to become acknowledged as competitive candidates for chief information officer roles? Particularly if these functions become more integrated, is that approach desirable or necessary to stand a better chance of getting recordkeeping right in a digital records world?
Even within the ARM field, have we done enough to better integrate the records management and archives professions and practices? Why are these groups seen as separate professions more in the U.S. than in Australia, Canada or Europe? Does the existence of separate professional societies really help either profession? Should not both groups have a sound understanding and experience of the other? In a very modest way of asking that question, the SAA and ARMA for years have been discussing the possibility of having a joint conference together. Since the sites for annual conferences have to be planned many years in advance, it is unlikely that such an event could happen as a joint annual meeting. When will both organizations stop discussing the desirability of a special joint event and do it?
[NB: The Australian Society of Archivist (ASA) and Records Management Association of Australia (RMAA) planned their first joint meeting for September, 2001, see http://www.archivists.org.au/events/conf2001/. A SAA/ARMA Joint Committee has been established for better coordination of professional interests in the two organizations.]
The ARM community has done some very worthwhile development projects in the past several years, especially in the area of electronic records management. We’ve done scarce little if any however regarding changing organizational tools for recordkeeping. What national, state and local government level organizational models work best by way of minimizing improper political influence over sound recordkeeping practices?
For example, the New South Wales, Saskatchewan and Kentucky archivists enjoy similar protections whereby they have a board to report to that includes representation from their governing legislative and Supreme Court bodies. How has this model worked? Would others benefit from it? How about the different approaches wherein major decision making is left to the archivist versus the above cases where the board must decide. Do archivists see the latter model as giving up power or as a good way to avoid political interference? What about university and private sector organizations? These kinds of questions are worthy of serious research and certainly have international relevance. There would be worse topics for funding by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the grant-funding arm of NARA.
Have ARM professionals become too insular in their deliberations? What must archivists and records managers in all their roles – as employees and managers of recordkeeping organizations, as academicians and researchers and as members of professional associations – do better than has been done thus far to create a greater public and organizational awareness and acceptance of the value of preserving information assets of continuing value whether required to do so by law or not? How can ARM professionals better understand, identify and articulate the added value of their own roles and of the recordkeeping function in their organizations in ways that executives and other lay people will appreciate and support? What can be done to establish the critical role of recordkeeping professionals and systems in democratic societies and governments in ensuring accountability and historical perspective with respect to their most secretive and closed agencies?
Are we doing enough in our archival studies programs to forewarn and prepare students who aspire to responsible archivist posts of the potential minefields and tests of their ethical foundations? Are the products of such programs able, willing and equipped to take the heat of the kitchen when their jobs may be at stake? More importantly do we, as professionals, really want to hear about uncomfortable ethical cases? Are we more comfortable placing codes of ethics in frames and hanging them on the walls of our offices than we are looking down some rather dark holes? I believe that a forthcoming book by Richard Cox and David Wallace that addresses many real-life, records-related ethics and social impact cases will demonstrate that this is a topic that will gain growing interest by ARM professionals and others.
At a more mundane level, are there inaccuracies in the Davis book? A couple of people with whom this reviewer spoke say there are and that Davis had her own agenda in writing the book. But none would get specific with me.
Are these behind-the-scene speculations getting in the way of the bulk of Davis’ observations and messages? If there are questions of this nature, wouldn’t the profession be better served by dissenters asserting the inaccuracies or dark agenda, putting them up to the light of day and asking Ms. Davis in an open forum to defend herself against such assertions? Or else drop them.
Davis’ writing reveals a respect and zeal for good recordkeeping and archival practices that is rare outside the ARM profession – and when all other avenues failed, she sacrificed her livelihood and government career of some 20 years to go public with what she believed to be a very bad situation.
In a meeting with this author, it was apparent that, although not bitter, she remains saddened about what she regards as the dismissal of her assessment report on the state of recordkeeping in IRS (while still an IRS employee) given by the National Archives and subsequently the deafening silence awarded to this book by NARA and the ARM community despite its considerable success on the bookstands.
In an effort to paint a balanced picture of the book in this review, I attempted to learn from NARA if there were untruths or inaccuracies in the book. After organizing a meeting with NARA officials responsible for IRS records, it was canceled on direction of the NARA General Counsel on the grounds that NARA should not be asked to comment on a book – even a documentary like this. Fair enough! NARA did provide extensive background materials regarding its own assessment of IRS recordkeeping practices that, in some important ways, was considerably at odds with Davis’ account and offered to respond to any specific examples of differences in findings.
If Davis is not regarded as something of a pariah by NARA or ARM professional associations, after the successful mainstream publication of her book, why has she not been invited by these organizations to speak about her very hard learned lessons – the good and the bad – concerning recordkeeping during the course of her 20 years as an archivist and historian? Perhaps it would add a little pizzazz, not to mention healthy discussion of the relationships between ARM professionals and historians, to our often otherwise inbred conference programs.
[NB: Davis was invited to the 1999 SAA Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh PA. Her presentation was, “Lessons in Sportsmanship for Archivists Learned from Wrestling with the IRS Records Bear.” It was one of the lesser-attended sessions that year.]
Archivists and records managers will not necessarily agree with Davis’ every point; but this is true with some of the best writings in professional discourse. Nor will many feel comfortable with her in-your-face way of putting things or ad hominem remarks about individuals she encountered at the IRS. She admits that at least some of this was done at the request of the publishers to spice up what might otherwise have been considered a dull – even if important – accounting of recordkeeping in a federal agency.
Nonetheless, her story should be of deep interest to all professional archivists and records managers; and we should not allow her sometimes off-putting presentation to get in the way of its underlying accounting. It is a rare event when someone who is both professionally qualified and a dedicated supporter of both NARA and the archives and records management field shares a user’s perspective on recordkeeping practices. Even if unrepresentative of how most organizations behave, her insights of how it was done in IRS are worthy of thoughtful consideration for all of us.
Her observations are provocative. But the ARM community should not be repelled or defensive, or discredit her for that. The only questions are: Since they haven’t been challenged, can we assume the basic accuracy of her reporting and, if not, in what ways? Can we take it and learn from what she has to say? I, or one, think the profession is quite up to the challenges presented in the Davis book – possibly even yearning for it. Remember, this book was intended for public consumption. It is intended to shake up the reader and induce a better understanding the importance role of records and recordkeeping in a democratic society. Don’t expect it to read like a paper out of A&M, The American Archivist or Archivaria.
Will we use some less well-done aspects of her presentation that are emotional or lacking in science to justify ignoring the basic messages about recordkeeping that she has recorded? Hopefully not! Whistle blowing almost always has those attributes along with some very important messages that are easy to get lost along the way. Nor should we consider it dishonorable for whistle blowers like Davis to ‘sell’ there stories when they have usually, and after deliberation, foregone their jobs and sources of family income to do what they thought was ethical. Selling their stories, even if sometimes giving in a bit to the publishers to spice things up, is small recompense for their lost future careers, income streams, pensions and health plans.
For reminding us in this book what the best of what we do is all about, archivists and records managers owe Davis a debt of thanks.
© 2001 Richard E. Barry
 Some detractors of this book raise questions about the author’s credibility and her authority to write such a book. For this reason, and because the interaction between the author as IRS Historian and the IRS records management office and National Archives is such a central element of the book, it is important to briefly comment on Davis’ background. Although her career was ultimately as a historian, Shelley Davis gained records management credentials through education, through working in the trenches and even through marriage. After receiving her MA in military history from the University of Nebraska, which included course work in archival studies, she began her professional career as an assistant archivist at the University Library. She later married an Air Force records management officer who wrote the Air Force’s records management manual. After-work discussions of records management issues were not uncommon in the Davis household.
 For details of the Australian Heiner case, see the commentary by leading Australasian archivist Chris Hurley on the Records and Information Management On-line Service (RIMSO) website at http://www.caldeson.com/RIMOS/heiner.html.
 True at the time of initial writing in 1998.
 Duranti and Ardern bring a Canadian perspective to their American colleagues. Duranti, even more than her Canadian perspective brings a perspective from the European tradition of recordkeeping and on diplomatics and its application to contemporary recordkeeping, stemming from her Italian upbringing and practice and doctoral education in Rome.
 For an excellent treatise on this subject, see Authentic Electronic Records: Strategies for Long-Term Access by Charles Dollar. Cohasset Associates, Chicago, email@example.com, 1999, 248 pp. An excerpt from a pre-publication version of this book may be found in the Guest Authors section of this website at www.rbarry.com/CSum1.html.
 The Role of the National Archives of Canada and the National Library of Canada, Report by Dr. John English et al, submitted to the Honorable Sheila Copps.