How do you know what it is you don’t know? And when it is about Peace Corps and its history, how would you know where to begin, where to go, or how to evaluate what is described? Is Peace Corps being lost in the “maze of marketing and myth” as Alan Toth (South Africa 2010-1012) so aptly put it? Toth is the Director and Producer of Posh Corps, The Modern Peace Corps Experience (poshcorps.com). RPCVs may know only their own time and place. The average citizen would not necessarily know anything, except perhaps “There used to be a Peace Corps”(Christiane Amanpour, March 2008, at a panel discussion at George Washington University).
The Peace Corps Mission remains unchanged since President Kennedy’s mandate:
To promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
- To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained Volunteers.
- To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.
- To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans
In some 140 countries, over the last 55 years and continuing today, more than 220,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have worked at the grassroots crossroads of the past and the future. Volunteers have witnessed the end of colonization, the rise of modernity and its cultural blowback, climate change and its environmental consequences, political violence and terrorism. Volunteers have intervened and interfered in other peoples’ lives, sometimes with outstanding success and sometimes not. Peace Corps Volunteers have opened a window on the lives of people of the world. A Peace Corps Library would advance the Third Goal by opening that window wide to all of America.
Peace Corps history is kept alive by ongoing independent activities by many RPCVs. These include John Coyne and Marian Haley Beil (Ethiopia I) of this website, who have promoted, mentored, and published RPCV writers for over 35 years, Alan Toth of the aforementioned Posh Corps, Phyllis Noble (Nigeria 65-67) working with the JFK Library on the RPCV Oral History Collection, begun by Robert Klein, (Ghana I); the Columbia River RPCVs and their Museum of the Peace Corps Experience; and, the Peace Corps Community Archive at American University, promoted by Pat Wand (Colombia 63-65). Peace Corps has acknowledged Third Goal activities created independently by RPCVs but none are mentioned on the Peace Corps official website; its social media, or in its budget.
What should such a Peace Corps Library be and what should it have? A Peace Corps Library should be public, independent, and adequately funded. A Peace Corps Library should have a professional Librarian Research staff, a RPCV advisory committee, an Internet presence as well as a physical location.
Why Must A Peace Corps Library Be Public?
A Peace Corps Library must be public because public history cannot be privatized. It is a public responsibility. Peace Corps is a unique federal agency in which the actual work is performed by Peace Corps Volunteers, who are private citizens. This work represents the real history of the Peace Corps, but is not systematically preserved. The National Archive and Records Administration was created to preserve historical records of the federal government. Too often, however, the Peace Corps records kept are administrative, not those of the actual work done in host countries, by Volunteers.
Peace Corps Volunteers share their work and the lives of people with whom they serve in books, videos, oral histories, letters, journals, documentaries and stories. These are a treasure but are scattered among many different places, some in libraries, some in universities, both public and private, and many only on the Internet. The items archived in public institutions may be considered in the public domain, although each institution may have its own guidelines for public access. Items donated to private universities are the property of the private institutions.
Once there was a Peace Corps in-house library staffed by a professional Librarian. Those archives were used for research, to orientate non-RPCVs newly employed by Peace Corps, and to aid staff in program development. It was an attempt to provide an “institutional memory”, and to compensate for the staff turnover mandated by the “Five Year Rule”. When Peace Corps moved to its current location in the late 90s, this library was disassembled and the records dispensed. Some were transferred to the National Archive and Records Administration. If a list exists of all the records and their disposition, it is not readily available.
There is an official Peace Corps website that has photos and some stories from serving Volunteers. There is no emphasis on Peace Corps history. Peace Corps has created an Intranet website for staff and serving Volunteers for information exchange.
There is also a companion Internet site, still under construction, that may ultimately make materials available to RPCVs and the general public. But, the current administration is nearing its end and the future of the latter site is not clear.
Why Must a Peace Corps Library Be Independent?
A Peace Corps Library must be independent of the Peace Corps Agency precisely because the Third Goal of the Peace Corps, “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans” is interpreted differently depending on the priorities established by each politically appointed Peace Corps Director. Those priorities may change with each new administration. Peace Corps Directors must determine the best way to use available resources to meet legislative mandated goals. The decision to close down the in-house library is one example of how one Peace Corps administration can eliminate programs of previous administrations. The policy change that Peace Corps staff would no longer be available for in-depth research is another.
Why must a Peace Corps Library be adequately funded?
A Peace Corps Library must be adequately funded and independent of the funding for Peace Corps. Preserving the history of Peace Corps is a goal independent of the contemporary work of the Peace Corps. Certainly, an independent Peace Corps Library would reinforce the official work of Peace Corps and be an ongoing resource for Peace Corps staff. The work of finding and cataloging Peace Corps documents, public and private, must be ongoing and not interrupted by a shortage of funds or competition with other laudatory goals. The Five Year Rule means a constant staff turnover at the Peace Corps agency that is contrary to the continuity necessary for a library. People should be able to depend on the creditability, the objectivity, and the accessibility of the Peace Corps Library.
What is Necessary for a Peace Corps Library to be public, independent, and adequately funded?
A sound legal foundation would guarantee that the Peace Corps Library would be and remain public, independent, and adequately funded. That might mean that a Peace Corps Library would be incorporated into the National Archives and Records Administration or that a Public Corporation could be created. All options should be explored.