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.