NAGARA Statement on Texas HB 1962
4/8/2019 6:00 PM
Washington, D.C. - Today, The National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA) called upon the Texas State Legislature to remove Section 441.206(b) of House Bill (HB) 1962. NAGARA is greatly concerned that this legislation, which grants ownership and legal custody of archival legislative records to legislative entities instead of the state archives program, will jeopardize the integrity of the public record that is so crucial to maintaining an open and transparent democratic process.
While NAGARA applauds efforts to reauthorize and modernize legislation regarding the Texas State Library and Archives Commission (TSLAC), this bill tampers with the fundamental pillars of records management, archival science, and their relationship to governmental transparency. Specifically, Section 441.206(b) would negatively impact trust in government by damaging the context of legislative records, insert doubt into the authenticity of said records and the reliability of information contained within, and create a logistical headache that would certainly result in less efficient expenditure of resources and greater costs to the citizens of the State of Texas.
Responsible management of public records results in accountability of public officials – essential in any democracy. This legislation calls into question the authenticity and reliability of the public record in the areas of:
- Chain of Custody: Clear custody of records is an essential element to guaranteeing their authenticity. Archival provenance, especially for essential public records, depends on clear and unbroken chain-of-custody and active preservation of the context and original order of records. The information contained within public records loses significant value without context. HB 1962 would damage this well-established archival best practice by taking custody away from the archivists at TSLAC who are trained to identify and preserve this context. Even more troubling is the expectation that TSLAC be accountable for physical management of these records but not intellectual control. Archivists would not be able to guarantee that the records were complete and unaltered if they were to leave their custody, and uncontrolled access to them would call into question integrity of those records and the veracity of the information contained within. This legislation would allow an agent external to the archives to remove and modify these records at-will long after their natural lifecycle has ended, and could subject the historical record to the whims of politics and public opinion.
- Logistics: The vast majority of work when it comes to public access to records is search and retrieval; that search and retrieval time is reduced by the work of archivists and other records professionals who painstakingly arrange and describe records. Removing custodial responsibilities from TSLAC would impede search and retrieval and overwhelm staff resources. The scope of the bill includes all legislative records, which could be interpreted to include the legislative records of every municipality in the State, throwing the legal custody status of hundreds or thousands of existing transfer and custody agreements into question. Finally, it is likely that TSLAC is by far the organization best equipped to preserve, protect, and provide access to these records for the indefinite future; it is similarly unlikely that legislative bodies are equipped to do so. Removal of these records from archival institutions does not exempt them from proper handling, care, and preservation as required by law. Other organizations would need to build this expertise and capability, at great expense. It is far more efficient to centralize the expertise and resources required with trained professionals. It is important to recognize that these records belong to the citizens of Texas; the TSLAC assumes ownership and administrative control over all state records on behalf of the people of the state.
In summary, passage of such language would result in a loss of transparency, put essential public records at risk of accidental or in a worst-case scenario, intentional change, and likely lead to an increase in costs with little to no benefit realized. TSLAC has the facilities and the expertise to perform all duties necessary to promote transparent public access to these records. If records are needed by the Texas legislature or the public, when appropriately resourced, the professionals at TSLAC will be able to provide the best access. Allowing legislative bodies to maintain custody does not provide better access, better protection, or better preservation of public records; all it does, at best, is call into question the authenticity and reliability of those records, and at worst, permits tampering with the historical record without oversight.
For the reasons outlined above, NAGARA urges that the section in question be stricken from this bill.
The National Association of Government Archives and Records Administrators (NAGARA) is a professional association dedicated to the effective use and management of government records and information at all levels of government. NAGARA champions good management of government archives and records programs for the benefit of government and its citizens.