Scholarly dust-up over Giuliani's archives

Historians protest the former mayor's move to catalog his records privately. Another sign of government and corporate secrecy?

HOw will history judge Rudolph Giuliani? Right now, if his archives are any indication, only Rudy knows.

As the former mayor left New York City Hall at the end of December, he had 2,000 boxes of papers, pictures, mementoes, and tapes carted away to a private, secure location in Queens known as the "Fortress."

There, for the first time in the city's history, those public mayoral papers will be sorted, cataloged, and judged by a private archivist hired by the newly incorporated Rudolph W. Giuliani Center for Urban Affairs. It's the product of a deal cut the week before he left office.

The goal of the private cataloging, according to the head of the center - a close friend of Mr. Giuliani's - is to process the material more professionally and efficiently than could be done by the city's archives.

The move may seem inconsequential to some, but certainly not to historians, archivists, and journalists. They're convinced it's just part and parcel of an increasingly secretive government and corporate culture, eating at the heart of American democracy. They invoke other instances: the shredding of Enron documents, the White House's stonewalling on its secret Enron consultations, and the Bush administration's efforts to restrict access to the papers of living presidents - most notably, George W. Bush's father.

"There seems to be a movement among certain parties in positions of power ... to create barriers to American citizens' right to know what their governments are doing," says Tom Connors of the American Society of Archivists, a national organization of custodians of public documents based in Chicago. "Archivists find this trend alarming."

So much so, it prompted a public demonstration of scholarly dismay. This week, dozens of bespectacled and bearded archivists and historians rallied on City Hall steps, protesting what they called "the indefensible ... hijacking" of public records. While they made it clear they didn't want to cast aspersions on Giuliani's probity, they did note his "penchant for secrecy" and his tendency to release "only information that reflected well" on himself and his administration while in office.

"Personal probity is not what's at issue here," says Mike Wallace, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and director of the Gotham Center for New York History. "We must not be put in the position of being asked to trust any private individual with custody of the public's records. They are the raw material of our collective history."

The historians and archivists have asked to meet with Giuliani's successor, Mayor Michael Bloom-berg. They've already sent him a petition with more than 1,000 names, urging him to repeal the deal and send the documents to the city's Department of Records and Information Services - or as it's affectionately known in the trade, DORIS.

Mr. Bloomberg has won kudos for throwing open the doors of City Hall and making its accessibility a top public priority. But so far, on the records issue, he's backing up Giuliani.

"We're quite confident that we can protect the documents and we will be able to satisfy any freedom-of-information-law requests," says Mayor Bloomberg.

There's part of the rub. Right now, any credible researcher can walk into DORIS, fill out a slip of paper, and get access to any document they'd like from former administrations. To probe the depths of, say, the Giuliani phone logs, they'll have to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request. That can take months, sometimes years.

Giuliani has defended the agreement, saying it was made with the city's best interest at heart, and not that of his own research for a $3 million book deal. Indeed, the private foundation expects to raise $1 million to pay for the project, relieving the city of that financial burden. Giuliani has also made it clear he's willing to negotiate on which papers would be deemed private and which would be public.

But that doesn't satisfy the historians. While they aren't ready to talk about a lawsuit yet, they're not ruling one out, either.

"This should be a slam-dunk. It's a clear policy issue where the records should be," says Norman Siegal, former president of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

If the historians sue, the process itself may give a slightly different hue to how Rudy is remembered in the future.

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