Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Papers Chase

This week's New Yorker features "The Great Paper Caper," a fascinating account of the 1970s theft of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter's personal papers from the Library of Congress. The missing documents -- some of which have never resurfaced -- included a 1952 letter from future Chief Justice William Rehnquist, then a law clerk for Justice Robert Jackson, allegedly expressing disappointment with the Court's decision to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson's "separate but equal" doctrine. (Rehnquist's views on segregation, exposed in a separate memorandum released to Newsweek, had become a focal point during his 1971 confirmation hearing. The missing letter from the Frankfurter collection was explored in more detail in a 2012 Boston College Law Review article.)

Author Jill Lepore reconstructs the F.B.I. investigation of the Frankfurter thefts, speaking with researchers who had consulted the papers prior to the theft and recounting the efforts of syndicated columnist Jack Anderson to broker the papers' safe return. Some, but not all, of the purloined papers were eventually sent to him as photocopies; Anderson's plan for publicizing their triumphant return was thwarted by the press's increased attention to the growing Watergate scandal.

It's an engaging heist story which also sheds light on the fractured state of Supreme Court archival research. As Lepore notes:
The papers of Supreme Court Justices are not public records; they’re private property. The decision whether to make these documents available is entirely at the discretion of the Justices and their heirs and executors. They can shred them; they can burn them; they can use them as placemats. Texts vanish; e-mails are deleted. The Court has no policies or guidelines for secretaries and clerks about what to keep and what to throw away. Some Justices have destroyed virtually their entire documentary trail; others have made a point of tossing their conference notes.
Rehnquist, whose Supreme Court career nearly derailed as a result of public access to other Justices' papers, quickly reversed his earlier stated position that Supreme Court papers should all reside at the Library of Congress. His own papers remain mostly inaccessible until the last Justice who served with him passes away. Other Justices' papers might reside at the Library of Congress, with various requirements on the length of their sealing. Some Justices' paper sets were donated to university archives. Still others, such as Hugo Black's, have been burned.

This story is a sobering reminder to historical researchers. While it's well-known by now that not everything is available online, it's perhaps more important to know that many historical records might not be available at all. Databases like WorldCat and ArchiveGrid can help you determine where a particular collection of papers might be held. But access to the documents could require an in-person visit and/or hefty copying fees. Newer archival researchers may benefit from reviewing the Society of American Archivists' Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research, for helpful information on locating archives, requesting materials and planning visits. More seasoned archival researchers might enjoy the recent Inside Higher Ed piece, 6 Tools to Make Archival Research More Efficient, covering apps and technology to make this complex research more streamlined. For assistance with beginning an archival research project, be sure to Ask a Librarian.