Navy Taking Steps, Including Acknowledging Heavy-Handed and “Too-Comprehensive Application” of Kyl-Lott Review, to Resolve Naval Archive Crisis.
In April 2012, Unredacted published a blog item about an ongoing crisis at the U.S. Navy’s Naval Heritage and History Command. The problems were so troubling that the U.S. Navy’s Inspector General produced a highly critical report asserting that the Navy’s history program was “at risk” largely because of serious management problems, inadequate funding and staffing, and environmental threats to unique historical records. While the problems are far from solved, the Navy leadership took the problems seriously and recently announced that it has made progress in remedying them. Nevertheless, the Navy archives remain closed to public access. Until that problem is solved, the Navy will not have an effective, functional history program.
According to the IG report, released through a FOIA request by the National Security Archive, the Navy’s historical records and artifacts were housed in a precarious environment, and invaluable archival material, including unique microfilm collections, was in danger. The IG also found that the History and Heritage Command’s leadership had not been using due diligence to ensure that naval commands and fleets were creating historical records of their ongoing activities. Moreover, the Navy’s professional historians, archivists, curators, and librarians who work for the history command felt “disenfranchised” because of “their marginalization in decision processes and lack of advancement opportunity.”
A basic part of the problem was that the Navy’s Operational Archives are stored in a 19th century brick structures (buildings 44, 57, and 108) in the middle of the Washington Navy Yard. Mold threatened some 70 percent of records, not only paper files but also unique microfilms of Navy message traffic. As part of the program to eliminate environmental threats, the Navy took a draconian step in fall of 2012. It closed off the archives, along with photo, aviation, and ships histories collections, to all public access while contractors worked on upgrading the buildings and the Navy developed improved and expanded archival storage space nearby.
The Navy also tackled the huge collection of microfilms by purchasing special refrigerators and starting to transfer their content to more stable microfilm format. Moreover, a major digitization project is under way to catalog the archives down to the file level to create comprehensive finding aids. All of this required increased funding and staffing levels which the Navy has made available, to its credit.
This researcher and others were startled by the closing but, given the scope of the festering problem, it appears to have been unavoidable. Preservation was only part of the problem, however. As the IG report had noted, the archives had a massive backlog of unprocessed collections, not only the microfilm dating back to the 1940s and 50s. Moreover, the Navy conducted its Kyl-Lott review for records containing Restricted and Formerly Restricted Data in a heavy handed manner, with collections unlikely to have any nuclear secrets closed off for indefinite periods of time, much to the angst of researchers. So that problem needed special scrutiny.
On 21 May 2014, the Navy reported on its remediation progress, the steps it has taken, and the progress it expects to make. News that the photo, ships, and aviation history units have reopened for two days a week is a positive sign. The digitization work continues as do other preservation efforts. Moreover, the Navy tacitly acknowledged that it had gone overboard in its implementation of Kyl-Lott: “the Histories and Archives Division … is correcting the too-comprehensive application of the Kyl-Lot standard to all historical records held at NHHC, which dramatically restricts access.” A Navy working group is “developing … review procedures that will identify collections that will not need Kyl-Lott reviews and how to focus on those collections that do.” Time will tell whether new procedures will make World War II records, Cold War, and post-Cold War records more accessible to researchers. Still, the Navy should be lauded by its realization that its application of the Kyl-Lott was “too comprehensive;” hopefully it will serve as an example for other agencies.
The staffing and leadership problems cited in the IG report were not directly mentioned but the Navy’s investment in resources and staffing may help with morale. Reportedly the Navy will put the NHHC under the direction of a high-grade civil servant. If the Navy selects an individual with a serious commitment to history and deep experience in historical research and writing in and outside of government, that will be a good sign of progress.
At present, the Navy archives, the heart of its historical program, remain closed. According to the Command’s report, they may reopen this fall, depending on “the pace of the overall building and mold remediation efforts.” Let us hope that the Command can solve this problem expeditiously. Without access to formerly open files, and the declassification of other closed collections, independent historical research on the modern U.S. Navy will continue to be “at risk.”