March 31, 2009

Among the first executive orders signed by Barack Obama were two that require greater compliance with Freedom of Information Act requests. Now, there’s an executive order Densho likes. We are all about information here. In fact, we can overwhelm people with information. In our Digital Archive we’ve stored thousands of government documents that redress activists and coram nobis lawyers dug up in the 1980s to prove that the government detained Japanese Americans on false premises. I shudder to think how the quest for redress could have been shut down if federal archivists had locked the documents out of sight.

Obama’s executive order says:

“A democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, ‘sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.’ In our democracy, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which encourages accountability through transparency, is the most prominent expression of a profound national commitment to ensuring an open Government. At the heart of that commitment is the idea that accountability is in the interest of the Government and the citizenry alike.”

We like those sentiments. And I hear a common strain in a quote by Thomas Jefferson that my coworker Dan sent me. In 1791, Jefferson said of government documents:

“Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals (of valuable historic and state papers) deposited in our public offices. The late war has undone the work of centuries in this business. The lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks which fence them in from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such multiplication of copies as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.”

We’ll make sure that Densho’s digital copies are beyond reach of accident.