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City Council Testimony:
Thomas Kessner, Graduate Center, City University of New York

Thank you for inviting me to appear at this session. My name is Thomas Kessner and I am a Professor of History at the City University of New York Graduate School. For the purpose of this hearing it may also be relevant to say that I am a biographer of Firoello La Guardia.

I come here to speak about the mayoral papers and the Archives. These are things that most citizens do not think about. Mayoral papers and records are a rather arcane set of topics for a city that has poor people to feed and the public safety to protect. But NY is a world class city and it has grand lessons to teach, and yet ironically among world cities it is probably the one least concerned with its own history. Our museums and archives are held to low budgets and I should add that the recent rethinking of the deal with the Museum of the City of New York is an added concern. There is too little attention paid to nourishing a sense of history, of the role of the past in shaping our contemporary lives. And then we are surprised when we read about how our teenagers are clueless about the past. So are our adults.

Go elsewhere and city records going back centuries are treated with a kind of sacral deference. Here, the preservation of records is spotty at best and a very low priority. I recall how Professor Leo Hershkowitz saved a trailer full of Tweed era records by bringing them to Queens College. Go elsewhere and entire communities and neighborhoods have been preserved in a kind of amber that makes the physical environment a perpetual demonstration of the past. Here the past is thoughtlessly erased.

It had always been a puzzle to me why thee was much more historical literature about other cities much less important than our metropolis. Then I began to do research on this city's history and I encountered an almost programmed unwillingness in the early1970s to make records available, to reveal anything. Any obstacle that could be put in my way was. The fellow who controlled access to one set of city records once told me "I do not know what the basis for denying you access is yet, but we will find it."

I was also shocked at the number of records that were allowed to be destroyed by water and environmental damage when the archives were so cavalierly warehoused in the sixties and early seventies. In my own research I remember the odd feeling when I looked for a critical set of files only to find a note saying that a certain professor had borrowed them for his research and no one was able to find them since. No one even knew if he had ever returned them. Idilio Gracia Pena made a huge improvement, and Ken Cobb has really stepped up the level of professionalism, and we need to buttress this progress. It seems to me that it ill behooves a former mayor who was in a position to fund the archives to say that his papers need to be processed more quickly or more efficiently than the Municipal Archives can do it.

I can speak for a bit about the importance of mayoral papers from my own work, on Fiorello La Guardia. Because these papers were available I was able to learn a great deal about how the city was run; how it met the crisis of depression and the scandals of the Walker administration; how one effective, driven, indefatigable man was able to make so much of a difference.

But I also remember finding a set of files that flew in the face of La Guardia's progressive character and reputation. It contained a rabid denunciation of the Japanese and support for their internment here. Other papers indicate that there were secret police efforts at spying on New Yorkers during war time. These are important documents. Can we be sure that if the job of archiving these papers had been given to a friend of the mayor that he would not try to polish the mayoral reputation by misfiling or hiding these papers or worse? Of course because these papers were kept by the city I was able to tell a fuller story than otherwise.

I am certain that there papers in the collection that we are talking about today that may be embarrassing to Mr. Giuliani. Yet they may be important. I for one cannot be confident that a friend of the former mayor is not going to tamper with these papers. Sure the present agreement states that he needs the corporation counsel's permission to destroy something, but this agreement is not self enforcing and the counsel is not going to have a representative looking over anyone's shoulder, and there will be situations where temptation will be strong to lose some papers.

But there is a more fundamental question. What are we saying about the Archives of the City of NY if we allow a private group to do its job? What are we saying about its importance? What are we saying to the people of this city about the reliability of the past Record when we allow a former mayor or his appointee to assemble the permanent record of his administration. For archivists do more than put papers in folders they also create the guides that provide intellectual passage through those papers. And why should a public official with training and a professional stake in doing that job objectively no perform the task for us?

Moreover, what is the reason for breaking precedent? Why should this set of papers be treated differently? Why should there be a taint of distinction attached to these papers? Are they to have an asterisk like Roger Maris' old home run record?

In the end it sets a bad example. The record of the public work of our elected officials should not be catalogued, sifted, and arranged by their friends. There is a profession that does this sort of work. There is a city agency that is entrusted with this work. This record is too valuable to give the job to a pal.

Let me close with this. The world has shown great respect for our former mayor. They have showered him with many honors, and New Yorkers too have made clear that they admire the fortitude and leadership that he displayed in leading this city through its time of great crisis. And perhaps he means nothing more by this arrangement than to speed the archival work, but it is not good for such a leader in these times to set precedents that I am certain will be used by less honorable leaders in other times to tamper with the historical record. This agreement should be terminated.

Thank you.


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Defending the archives contract: Saul Cohen, President, Rudy Giuliani Center for Urban Affairs