Saving the Historical Record

Scholars and archivists are making progress in sustaining a small but crucial program the Bush administration seeks to eliminate.
May 20, 2005

The budget of the National Historical Publications and Records Commission has never exceeded $10 million. A major grant from the commission might not exceed $100,000. This is small change in the context of the federal budget -- a rounding error would be larger than the agency's budget. But the funds have been vital to scholars who are editing and publishing the documents of American history.

President Bush proposed eliminating all support for the program this year. It's not that the Bush administration dislikes the program -- no one has attacked it or questioned its value. But the president identified scores of programs to eliminate this year as he tried to find as much money as possible for his priorities.

An intense lobbying campaign by historians and archivists appears to be paying off, however, and there is now optimism that the NHPRC, as it is called, will survive. Members of a House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee reported that just about all the mail they have received about the budget for the National Archives and Records Administration, of which the NHPRC is a part, has been about the program. And at a recent hearing on the Archives' budget, members of Congress from both parties referred to what they have heard about the commission and its importance.

That subcommittee hasn't drafted its budget bill, and neither has the equivalent committee in the Senate. So the commission isn't out of danger, but it's not on life support any more. "I think we've turned the tied," said Bruce Craig, director of the National Coalition for History, which has been working to sway members of Congress. "We've been flooding the committees."

Craig said that the program is "just a drop in the bucket," but that is both good and bad for its supporters: good because keeping it alive isn't that expensive, bad because lots of people have never heard of it. "It's so important, but relatively unknown."

The good thing for lobbyists is that the program has been around long enough (since 1934) that it has supported some project in just about any Congressional district. And many of those projects are long-term efforts to publish works of key documents in American history.

For instance, the commission has provided about $4 million to the First Federal Congress Project, a program at George Washington University. Since 1966, the project has published 17 of the projected 21 volumes in the series.

Charlene Bangs Bickford, director of the project, says that the first Congress has enormous importance in American history, having passed the Bill of Rights and the laws creating the first three executive departments, and setting the course of the legislative branch. "These documents we are publishing will be available to scholars for centuries to come," she said.

When Bickford raises private funds for the work, she said, the first question she hears is: "Isn't this something the federal government should be paying for?" So any reduction would not only lead to a loss of federal funds, but would hurt her ability to get money from other sources.

Ann D. Gordon, editor of The Papers of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, agreed that the NHPRC plays a role disproportionate to its dollars. "It's really set the standards. Their endorsements show that there is real scholarly support for a project."

The Stanton/Anthony papers, which are being edited at Rutgers University, currently has a $60,000 grant to support the work of one assistant editor.

"This agency is very important," Gordon said. "It was the agency that developed the modern idea of editing documents of historical figures."


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