The history of the Peace Corps can be found in the hearts and minds of people all over the world. It abounds in books and blogs, oral histories, letters, journals, and stories we tell each other and stories told by people in Host Countries about us. Public records are a very small but critical part of this array. I focus on public records because they are the working documents that have been used, through time and space, in the operations of the Peace Corps. They provide a historic framework. How they have been maintained through the last fifty years has varied because of technology as well as the perspective and regulations of the various administrations. This following is based on my understanding of current procedures.
So, what is a public record?
Public records are created by a government agency to order to conduct the public business. These records could include everything necessary to carry out legislative mandates, such as policies, memos, meeting minutes, published reports, correspondence, published annual reports, educational materials, program development, and budgets.
Personnel records are critical documents, but they are subject to the privacy laws and are not available for public review. Some public records may be classified or for other reasons have restricted access. With these exceptions, public records are available for public review.
Peace Corps is unique because its real work is not done by public employees, but by Volunteers. I assumed, however, that this real work would also be documented in “field generated materials,” documents created by Peace Corps Volunteers in the course of doing their work. I thought such materials would include site reports, program reports, correspondence, curriculums, and other technical papers. However, such materials proved to be very illusive to find. Much of what I will be describing here are administrative documents generated by Peace Corps employees. This is not because I think that such documents are at the heart of Peace Corps history, but because they were basically the only ones I could find in the public sector.
What is the life cycle of a public record?
Every federal agency has a public records manager. When records are longer needed and/or the political appointees in decision making positions change, then the manager begins the process to determine the final disposition of such public records. The first step is to determine if the record (s) is indeed obsolete, or not needed for day-by-day operations. The record manager consults with the appropriate department managers. The record manager also solicits recommendations as to the value of the record and whether it should be preserved or destroyed. Then, the record manager consults with the National Archivist (or his/her designed representatives) to determine if the records are to be archived for historical purposes or destroyed after a certain time period. Making that designation is called “scheduling.” The ultimate decision on how a record is to be “scheduled” rests with the National Archivist, who as a political appointee heads the federal agency known as the National Archives and Record Administration or NARA. It’s website is: http://www.archives.gov/
When a Peace Corps record has been scheduled, it is transferred to the Federal Record Management facility in Suitland, MD for storage, which is a part of NARA. Its website is: http://www.archives.gov/frc/
The following is from that website:
Transferring refers to moving records into the physical custody of a NARA Federal Records Center. The transferring agency retains the legal custody of transferred records until final disposition. When permanent records are accessioned into the National Archives. NARA takes legal custody of the records, and in most cases takes physical custody of the records as well. Accessioned records become the property of NARA.
The Peace Corps record group is Record Group 490 and is archived at National Archives II at College Park, MD.
How can these public records be accessed?
If the record is still under the control of Peace Corps, then a Freedom of Information Act or FOIA request should be made to Peace Corps. Each agency has a FOIA webpage with explicit instructions on how to request documents. The link for the Peace Corps is: http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=open.open
This website will also link to published Peace Corps documents which are available online. If it is not clear where in the “pipeline” a record is, my suggestion would be to make a request to Peace Corps. The reply should tell you where the record is and how to proceed. Be prepared, the reply may also say that Peace Corps has no record of the document you seek.
If the record is in the Record Group 490 out at National Archives II in College Park, Md., it may also be requested via a FOIA. This could be expensive because of the mailing and copying costs. Another way to access a public record at the National Archives in College Park to is actually visit the facility and review the record(s) there. The NARA webpage will have information on how to do that. It is much like visiting a library, a top security library!
The National Archives and Record Administration also administers all the Presidential Libraries. The JFK Presidential Library in Boston, MA also has a collection of Peace Corps material donated by staff and Volunteers. The link for the library is:
There are also public records of the Peace Corps archived at universities, but they are the property of the universities. In subsequent postings, I hope to share what I have learned specifically about the collections at each of these locations and some suggestions on the process of accessing them.