What is a public record?

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.

10 Comments

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  • Nice job. I have the feeling that accessing these public records might not be an easy task without squeaky clean credentials. Have you ever gone to Maryland and physically looked in boxes? I am curious whether there is any kind of organization other than “Peace Corps Records, Area 490.” That sounds like it refers to a portion of a large storage building or maybe even a building onto itself. For instance, I work in building 111439 (which is not an address).

  • Lorenzo, Thank you. You are about eight steps ahead of me! My plan is to write about each of the main locations; PC/DC, The National Archives; and Unviersities, in separate posts.

    Let me share with you, now, what I know about the Archives. I have visited the National Archives at College Park and I have looked into those boxes. It is well worth it. The Archives are a large library and they are open to the public. The twin goals of all the archive staff are to protect all the documents and also to allow the public to access them. You do have to register and a picture ID is necessary. There is a reference room where the achivists can help you to find what records you may may be looking for. There are restrictions and time limits, but the staff are very helpful. There are many rules which must be followed, religiously.

    If you go to the NARA website, http://www.archives.gov/(and I am not sure if I have it posted correctlyin my blog), you will find all the information about visiting and using the Archives. If you put Peace Corps into the search box, it should bring up the Record Group and what is called a “Finder Aid” which should list, in broad categories, the materials which are included in the Peace Corps Record Group. To the best of my knowledge, there are no actual Peace Corps documents available online.

    As I understand it, only about 1%-2% of all public documents are permanently archived at the National Archives. Most are destroyed after a determined number of years. Theorectically, there should be a record of what has been stored; what has been destroyed and what has been archived. If Peace Corps has records for what has been destroyed, I could not find them.

    All of this means that efforts such as yours with your Peace Corps Chronology and the quest to get the Library of Congress to establish a special collection of books written by Peace Corps people are very important.

    I have a suggest for the Library of Congress project. Have you tried making a FOIA request for the procedures which the Library of Congress uses to establish a special collection? Under FOIA, government agency have to respond. That might be helpful.

    PS. I did like your suggestion of Area 490 and large secret buildings requiring special credentials. I did visit the Federal Records Center at Suitland, MD, which really does match that description. I was on a wild goose chase looking for PCV reports from Colombia, which I never found. However, I will share this piece of advice. If you are in the Federal Area at Suitland, and walking around looking for either a bus stop or a gate or another way out and you suddenly see these beautiful radar antennas or maybe weather balloons, and you think “My son, the meterologist, would love a picture of these, I just get my camera out.,” Don’t. Turns out that Naval Intelligence also has a center on the grounds.

  • I sure am happy that I wrote my Peace Corps book while the PC/W library still existed (1994-96). I spent several very productive days there with the onsite help of a professional librarian (Terry Cappuccilli). It seems that there were already rumors that the library was in danger because during the final editing of the book — early 1997 — I added a plea to keep it open.

    Joey and Lorenzo are doing a fine job trying to track down the surviving material, but I wish I had more confidence that we would ever find the ‘good stuff.’

    Having written some of the ‘official’ material I would caution that they be read with the proverbial grain of salt. (Where did that phrase come from and what salt got to do with anything?) Often the documents were more interested in proving a point, selling a proposal, covering ones posterior, putting lipstick on a pig, rather than tell what is really going on. Even some of mine might be of more interest to the rhetorician than to the historian.

  • Joey- Thank you for your suggestion. After years of working for the government at different levels (local, county & federal), I am a firm believer in guerilla skirmishes. Following numbered steps (the process) is meant to be fruitless to discourage people. If one seeks action, it is always wise to pull back the curtains. The Wizard of Oz is just an old, frail gambler. Call his bluff!

    I agree with David that “official” information is always strange and often jaded with government gobbly-gook and personal preferences and goals. It really would depend upon what one were studying. If one were studying the Peace Corps worlwide, regional statistics and summaries could be very useful. However, if one were preparing a memoir about your group at a moment in time, country correspondence might be boring but insightful. Maybe the hated bureaucrat did not have an agenda but rather was following orders, for instance. Or maybe, there was a serious problem that we as volunteers were totally unaware of.

    In my particular case, I made the conscious decision to write a very personal memoir. Political mumbo-jumbo has no place within my book. In fact, I am always a bit disgusted with our emphasis on “leaders.” The Peace Corps works and has worked for one half century because of the incredible efforts of so many youngsters and I would also add the incredible dedication of country staff to keep these youngsters safe, no easy task.

    My favorite analogy involves FDR programs- the WPA and the CCC. It is prudent to acknowledge the wisdom of these programs but rehashing their conception does little to explain exactly what they accomplished and what it was like to be part of them. In fact, there are very few first hand accounts even though 2 million served in the CCC- ten times the number of former Peace Corps Volunteers. Now, I have 2 grown sons and at least one of them is interested in the Peace Corps. It makes me wonder what might be available for his children to explain what it was all about. That’s how I got started on this personal crusade for the creation of a Peace Corps Experience Special Collection in the Library of Congress.

    I encourage people to use the internet and investigate the Library of Congress. It’s our damn library! It has more than 5,000 employees. Special Collections include some doozies. I saw one that included amateur (self-published) novels by journalists in the 1920’s (if I remember correctly). There are some strange collections. Saving first hand accounts by Peace Corps Volunteers and staff is not much different than safe-guarding another president’s personal project- the Corps of Discovery (Lewis & Clark).

  • Dave, Lorenzo, Thank you for the insight and the reminder that government documents can be dull, misleading, and promoting one agenca or covering up another!

  • According to an article posted on Huffington Post today (10/27/2010, “Audit:National Archives at Risk,” Brett Zongker), “Nearly 80% of U.S. government agencies are at risk of illegally destroying records.” In addition, an audit revealed the loss of documents. Where’s that Peace Corps Experience Special Collection at the Library of Congress?

  • This is so important. Thank you for the information on the Huffington Post article.

    Where is that Peace Corps Library housed in the Peace Corps Foundation, with a link to the Peace Corps Experience Collection at the Library of Congress??

  • Lorenzo,
    I hope we are not building libraries in the sky! But couldn’t the Peace Corps Library of the future have a link to your future collection at the Library of Congress??

  • Loan links between libraries is now par for the course. First things first- the creation of a Peace Corps Experience Special Collection at the Library of Congress is a must. Inter-library loans comes afterwards.

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