What Hillary Clinton’s “emailgate” tells us about archival practices and the historian’s work

The New York Times revealed on 2 March 2015 that Hillary Clinton had used her personal email account while she was Secretary of State to conduct government business. This use would have breached rules, in particular about email preservation. It has created much controversy in the US. An issue that has been raised was that when the State Department provided documents on the Benghazi attack, it could not search these emails as they were private.

This story is interesting in terms of archival practice: how could we imagine such a controversy in Europe about the preservation of government’s documents? The sudden “disappearance” of archival documents of a former Élysée Palace’s Secretary General – arguably the most strategic post in the French Republic – provoked a rather modest reaction last year.

But the US story is not really about a concern over the preservation of historical documents, and involves much politics in the run-up to the presidential election. Jeb Bush, possible Republican contender to the former Secretary of State, recently asked Hillary Clinton to publish her official emails arguing that “transparency matters.” Hillary Clinton reacted and tweeted that she wanted her emails to be publicly released: “I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible.”



This is where the story gets even more interesting from an historian’s point of view. While the possibility of having access to such a potentially rich primary source material is exciting, it also highlights a number of issues.

First, why should Clinton’s email be given declassification priority over other email sources? Condoleezza Rice’s email are not available (as far as I know), nor Colin Powell’s. And releasing the electronic correspondence of the Secretary of State only leaves in the dark the (potentially more important) emails of the rest of her administration. In addition, would other government administrations follow suit and decide to release their documents dating from the 2009-2013 period? If not, the consistency and coherence of the US government’s archival policy could be called into question.

Second, what will we do with these emails? And by “we” I do not simply think of historians, but any potential reader. The New York Times mentions the figure of 55000 pages of emails. Clearly it will not be possible to read them all in one go. This brings back to the wider methodological issues confronting contemporary historians, including the use of digital tools in research. But even beyond the distant reading-close reading debate, how will such emails be presented – if they are ever presented – to the public? Will they be freely searchable online on the website of the State Department’s archive? Will a search engine be created that will allow looking deep into each and every email?

The latter would mean that all 55000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s emails would have to be actually read by an archivist prior to the release, for confidentiality/national security reasons. In that case the releasing of Clinton’s emails would not take weeks, as The New York Times writes, but many months.



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