In Search of the Historic Public Records of the Peace Corps

Public records document the public business of government. Since 1961, the public business of Peace Corps has been to send almost 200,000 Volunteers to 138 countries to provide requested technical assistance. A public record of all that work would be invaluable.  So, I went looking for it.

I began my search on a rainy afternoon in my favorite city to visit, Washington DC, at my favorite time of year, early spring. All the middle schools on the Atlantic seaboard, if not the whole country, empty out, outfit 7th graders in matching color T-shirts and send them off to explore their national’s capital. The kids are still young enough to be awed, but not too much. I loved to watch them carefully step over the string fences on the National Mall to play Frisbee on the newly sown grass. One special incident happened at the Smithsonian where the American flag from Fort McHenry, still tattered and torn, was on display. One young, gangly African American boy, stared at the battered flag with a worried look, and then nudged the studious Asian-American girl beside him, “Well, he asked, Did we win?” Yes, I wanted to tell him, “We certainly did.”

Flush with pride in my country, I called what I still think of as my agency.

“Peace Corps,” the Operator said.  “May I speak to the Library?” I asked.

Let me pause for a moment, to describe my expectations at that point.

I envisioned a vast, well-lighted, well-organized, professionally staffed library. In addition to the documents related to selecting, training, and supporting Volunteers, the library, I assumed, would have records which included all country program descriptions, management, and evaluations, correspondence, contracts with the host countries, site reports, and other field generated materials by Volunteers.

Such public records would show what worked and what did not work. They would document what was learned from other cultures. They would show the opinions of Host Country citizens.  They would provide a chronological complete record of all these efforts. Historians, researchers and citizens of this and other countries would be able to see and study this public business. Such records would also help to fulfill the Third Goal of the Peace Corps to bring home to America what Volunteers had learned.

To return to my quest; the Operator hesitated, “Library?” After a round robin of voice mails, I finally contacted with a young man who told me that he was newly hired, and not a RPCV.  He said that there wasn’t really a Peace Corps Library, anymore.  As a matter of fact, the staff was right then trying to decide what items to keep and what items to throw away from a resource room.  He suggested that I might want to try the National Archives.

As I tried to figure out what to do next, where to go and whom to ask,

I sometimes felt I was a Volunteer back in Colombia. There were early morning bus rides, a strange technical vocabulary, smiling bureaucrats who were helpful but not knowledgeable, and always frustration as I got the wrong answer to what I assumed was the right question.  But there were great discoveries along the way: Reading the weekly meeting notes of the Shriver senior staff when Chris Sheldon came up from Colombia; finding an evaluation report of our health education group written by one of Charlie Peter’s men; reading Sam Brown’s ACTION staff reactions when a Peace Corps Volunteer was kidnapped by FARC; the School to School correspondence between the children of a small town in Colombia and a school in the US; and, a great letter, almost a Declaration of Independence, from a Country Director to the Ambassador vigorously spelling out who would decide when Volunteers were to be evacuated and the pledge to “take this to the White House” if need be.

It was if I had opened up a Star Wars holograph to see and hear history as it was happening. But there were disappointments, too. I still have not found a complete, chronological record of the real work done by Volunteers.  Nor, did I find much written by host country Nationals. The Peace Corps offices in each host country should be a source of valuable information. But, I was not very successful in learning what might be available there.

The purpose of this blog is to share what I did learn about the location and/or disposition of the historic public records of the Peace Corps. I would like to describe my time consuming mistakes so that others can avoid them. Almost all of what I found is only available in hard copy, so it is necessary to visit these locations. I am only in DC a few days, annually and so this search covers years. I welcome suggestions, corrections, additions, and criticisms. But most of all, I want to encourage everyone to seek out these records. They are our history.

9 Comments

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  • Joanne, is that you? Argh! I can’t believe a “resource room” would be the subject of a cleaning out. Where is the RPCV archivist? I am so glad you are calling attention to the need to preserve this material. If you are still in Denver, maybe we can get access to the CSU records.

    Aloha,
    Jane

  • Jane, is that you?! It is me. How is the publication “Peace Corps at Fifty” going? I hope to be able to read it very soon. As for records, there is a lot of work to be done.

  • Jane, we may have met and now that you are with friend John we will. In looking for ¨record´s¨goodluck! Look for some of the old timers and ask for background…or talk to former Peace Corps Directors like Jack or Sarge…have John set up a meeting with Wofford. A little know bit of history…if you were a Community Development Volunteer…you were a CARE/Peace Corps Volunteer, me too in Sevilla, Valle 1964-66. I wish you well…if I can be of any assistance, John has my address. Un fuerte abrazo, Bob
    Bob Arias
    Peace Corps Response Volunteer/Paraguay 2010-2011

  • Bob,
    Thanks for the good words and offers of help. I have enjoyed reading your comments here. What you are doing is so important.

    I was in community development, but my group had a duel description – Health Education/Rural Community Development. We were assigned to Salud Publica. But, we did coordinate with CARE for school lunch programs. My site was north of Popayan, Cauca. We may well have met and certainly have friends in common.

    I really have to clarify that my focus is narrow and is on existing public records – where they are and how to find them. I should also say that I do have an agenda, which I should have revealed right away. This is it: We need to have a Peace Corps Library, which is permanent, well funded, easily accessible, and comprehensive. It should be the home for all the history and material which you suggested.

    Finally, I’m Joanne, not Jane. Jane is a friend. I hope she will return and give more information about herself and her project. She is editor of a collection of essays, “Peace Corps at Fifty”, which I am hoping will be published soon.

    Again, thank you.

  • The Peace Corps Library, which all went back to it when it returned to independent agency status, discarded all domestic anti-poverty material in its possession. It had also expunged all of the old evaluation reports following the FOIA in 1975 and its implementation as the “paperwork reduction act.” It was easier to just toss it all rather than review each report and make sure that it now complied with the legislation. A lost trove of history of the Peace Corps! But, then again, it is axiomatic that with each new generation of poitical appointees, they by ahd large thought that there was nothing of value in the Peace Corps, or any agency for matter, and they had to prove to themselves that they were worth the title, and money, ot taking over agencies and remaking them in their own image. In fact, a study in the early 70’s concluded that it took three years for a political appointee to realize that the bureaucrats who worked for them were 1) knowledgeable and 2) had good ideas.

  • Dave, Thank you for the history. I have some questions.

    “It had also expunged all of the old evaluation reports following the FOIA in 1975 and its implementation as the “paperwork reduction act.” It was easier to just toss it all rather than review each report and make sure that it now complied with the legislation.”

    It is fascinating. There are still evaluation reports from Charlie Peters’ Evaluation Unit archived at the National Archives. Do you know how or why they might have been perserved? And, do you know who was in charge of making the decisions to toss so much?

    I have a response to a FOIA which gives a history of the Peace Corps Library, but it does not mention anything about the “paperwork reduction act.,” and doesn’t really talk much about the library during the seventies. But, it was in the mid seventies, according to what I have read, that it was decided to gather up some of the materials which Volunteers had created in the field and make them available to staff and other Volunteers. That ultimately morphed into the Information Collection and Exchange Unit.

    I have a sense of what regulations in regard to public records are in effect now, but I don’t know what all the different policies through the years may have been.

    I appreciate the observation about political appointees and I think that Peace Corps has suffered more than most from the large number of political appointees. Plus, of course, the five year rule and the fact that successful service as a RPCV was never a prerequisite for
    employment. I am still chilled by one recommendation in the Agency Assessment just completed. It recommended that political appointees might have an orientation as to the mission of the Peace Corps in addition to the current orientation on how to fill out personnel forms and find parking.

  • Usually, historical records are found by happenstance and I’m sure that Peace Corps records are stored out there somewhere. What it probably lacks is to be found, catelogued and stored properly in the National Archives so that it can be retreived by historians.

    As always, I also support a separate collection of Peace Corps Volunteers and staff published writing. Since 90% of these books are self-published, most libraries will not shelf them. As years pass, they are lost. I suggest the creation of a Peace Corps Experience Special Collection at the Library of Congress. Former volunteers and staff could donate materials for inclusion.

  • Joey- I am still looking for you and any others who trained at Taos/Penasco/LLano Largo, et al. I leave tomorrow for Rutgers and invited my replacement Volunteer, Paul Arfin, to attend and share a room. Have you read his book?
    I am impressed by your dogged pursuit in preserving what small
    history might survive us. Be well. Hasto pronto, espero oir de Ti.

  • Brad,

    Bien viaje! I have read Paul’s book. My site partner recommended it as they were in the same group. I thought it was excellent. The University of New Mexico’s Institute of Southwester Research has archives from the training days at UNM. It includes correspondence and field reports from Volunteers. Really valuable.

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