Real or fictional examples of government erasing information from an archive.
June 2, 2010 9:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to brainstorm real or fictional examples of some government or person in power trying to change or hide historical information by erasing, changing, or withholding items from a library or archive.

I'm giving a presentation about the importance of preserving authentic information and want some colorful examples. Here are a few I've come up with:

- The attempted withholding of the volume Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964-1968, vol. XVI: Cyprus; Greece; Turkey by the CIA to obfuscate covert operations in the 1960's;

- George Orwell's 1984: The Department of Truth's mission to rewrite news items to conform to the party's history;

- Star Wars episode II: Count Dooku erases Kamino from the Jedi archives to hide the creation of the clone army.

Can you think of others?
posted by GPF to Law & Government (41 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Post WW2 Japan engaged in a whole bunch of historical revisionism and whatnot
posted by sarastro at 9:40 PM on June 2, 2010

The secret service and the FBI confiscated all photographs taken of JFK with Marilyn Monroe. Recent news story here.
posted by Dilemma at 9:41 PM on June 2, 2010

Do you consider Nixon's Oval office tapes an "archive?" Because the mysterious silences are a pretty famous example.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:46 PM on June 2, 2010

In 2004 the Department of Justice sent an email memo to government repository libraries telling them to destroy information from their collections that could be considered useful to terrorists. I don't even remember exactly what these documents were. Some librarians destroyed them. Bernie Margolis, then head of Boston Public Library [now the head of the New York State Library] opted for civil disobedience, of a sort. In short, he took the documents from the Government Repository [as ordered] but instead put them into the circulating collection. Unfortunately, this was all happening in ancient times webwise, so I'll have to scare up some documents, but his quotations are archived on an old blog of mine. Please excuse the spam comments. Here are a few mailing list comments on the entire deal. More on the more general purges from depository libraries at The Memory Hole which is a great go-to source for all this sort of stuff.
posted by jessamyn at 9:47 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, I'm not that up on the specifics, but I think the history of Soviet Russia in general, and Stalin's reign in particular, is absolutely chock full of this stuff.
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:47 PM on June 2, 2010

Well, it's fairly grim to use as a "colorful example, " but the Nazis never planned for the extermination of the Jews to be public knowledge. There were code words, spoken orders instead of written ones--it seems that the whole operation was to stay out of the archives and not to become part of the official, public history of the Reich. Unfortunately I'm having trouble digging up more--most searches I do turn up more to do with recent Holocaust denial than Nazi concerns about future histories of their regime.
posted by col_pogo at 9:50 PM on June 2, 2010

"Real or fictional" becomes complicated when folks have an agenda.

The Priory Documents are supposedly real documents, deposited at the Bibliothèque Nationale, which tell a highly dubious story.

The Majestic 12 documents describe a government program that doesn't exist. Or does it? No, it doesn't.

Does it matter if something is true, if it's true enough that people act on it?
posted by SPrintF at 9:53 PM on June 2, 2010

It was common in many kingdoms or empires to destroy information about previous dynasties

For example, in Persia the Achaemenid Empire was succeeded by the Seleucid Empire, then Parthians, then Sassanids. All of these believed that kings were somewhat divine and that a necessary requirement for being king was to have royal blood. So when a new dynasty took power the they often tried to destroy every record of an earlier dynasty - they didn't want some upstart claiming descent from an older King to try to claim power.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 9:58 PM on June 2, 2010

The Assassin's Creed series of games is basically about unearthing a massive centuries-old catalogue of secret history which has been buried by various 'tagonists.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:58 PM on June 2, 2010

Yes, the USSR was pretty unabashed with airbrushing out people they didn't like anymore from photographs. Didn't the Russian revolution happen with a heaps of people simple, "disappearing" as well?

posted by alex_skazat at 9:59 PM on June 2, 2010

They aren't clandestine erasures in the way you seem to be looking for, but you could also probably find some relevant examples in this fascinating Wikipedia list of notable book burnings throughout history. I was thinking in particular of the "Burning of the books and burying of the scholars" by Qin Shih Huang, the first emperor of China. He had the express goal of purging various histories and philosophical schools from historical memory.
posted by col_pogo at 10:00 PM on June 2, 2010

For something closer to USA, try every single secret war in South America, backed by the CIA.
posted by alex_skazat at 10:01 PM on June 2, 2010

Oh and some security camera footage appears to potentially have gone missing at Foxconn recently.
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:02 PM on June 2, 2010

Best answer: You will probably also enjoy Airbrushing History, American Style by the Cline Center for Democracy about stuff, important stuff, vanishing from the White House website under the Bush administration. It goes well with this article Iraq Ally Lists Were Altered, Study Shows which is the NYTimes analysis of the report
While administration officials acknowledged that the number of nations supporting the war changed over time, academic researchers say three official lists appear to have been changed, yet retained their original release date, making them appear to be unaltered originals.

Two other White House lists appear to have been taken off the Web site, according to a study of the documents by Scott L. Althaus and Kalev H. Leetaru of the Cline Center for Democracy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
More of this sort of stuff on the FreeGovInfo site, specifically the secrecy category.

There are also weirder examples, like the push to officially classify Turkish aggression against Armenians as "genocide" instead of a "massacre" You'd think this would not be such a big deal but if your national library decides to put something under one subject heading [massacre] instead of another [genocide] there's a whole trickle down meaning effect that happens that is not insubstantial. I made an AskMe comment about this and I suggest reading the linked New Yorker article.

When I used to live in Eastern Europe in 1994, the university library in the town I lived in in Romania had a whole section of drawers in the card catalog marked SECRET. I thought that was a little strange because obviously they weren't at all secret. I asked the librarian about them and she told me "[T]hey were the cards for books that had not been available to the public during the reign of Ceaucescu and were now being restored to public use yet still remaining in their SECRET drawers as a chilling note about access to information and how easily [and covertly] it can be compromised." So there's that.
posted by jessamyn at 10:03 PM on June 2, 2010

This is a key plotline in Arc D'X and Rubicon Beach, both (incredible) novels by Steve Erickson.
posted by hermitosis at 10:07 PM on June 2, 2010

George R.R. Martin's "The Way of Cross and Dragon" includes a cult of Liars messing with archives; they're not the government, but it's dangerous in non-governmental hands, too.
posted by Zed at 10:13 PM on June 2, 2010

You might get some helpful examples if you email someone at the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom. In their list of statements and policies they have statements opposing expurgation of library materials and government classification of "sensitive" information, among others.

Following a link from the ALA's Govenment Documents Roundtable site led to this article. The blog that it's posted on looks like it might be a fruitful source of inquiry too.
posted by MsMolly at 10:37 PM on June 2, 2010

When I used to live in Eastern Europe in 1994, the university library in the town I lived in in Romania had a whole section of drawers in the card catalog marked SECRET. I thought that was a little strange because obviously they weren't at all secret. I asked the librarian about them and she told me "[T]hey were the cards for books that had not been available to the public during the reign of Ceaucescu and were now being restored to public use yet still remaining in their SECRET drawers as a chilling note about access to information and how easily [and covertly] it can be compromised." So there's that.

Wow! In the same town (if I'm not mistaken about where Jessamyn was), there is a recently refurbished ethnological museum. It features all sorts of odd fishing and hunting gear, tools dealing with farming and animal husbandry, folkloric village costumes, examples of traditional weaving, pottery and handicrafts - that sort of thing. The vast majority of this stuff is of Hungarian ethnic origin, despite the fact that the city is now in Romania. (Until the end of WWI, and for a time during WWII, the city was part of Hungary or the Austro-Hungarian Empire and had been for centuries. Until the second half of the 20th Century, its dominant culture and demographic majority was Hungarian.)

Despite Hungarians being the largest ethnic minority in town - and despite Hungarians being the most numerous foreign visitors to the town - the labels and placards describing what's what are written solely in Romanian, English and French. The origin of many of the items is indisputable (for instance, much of the embroidery and pottery is decorated with Hungarian inscription), but the placards make no mention of this. Under an object from a Romanian village, it will state, "A piece of traditional Romanian clothing from the Romanian village of X," while its Hungarian equivalent might say something like "Clothing from the village of Y," with no mention of the make-up of the village - and on top of it, it will use the Romanian name of the village, even in cases where the "Romanian" name doesn't really exist, and is in fact simply a vague "translation" of the village's Hungarian name. If you didn't know the city's history or were unable to recognize / read any Hungarian, you'd have no idea that Hungarians were ever even there - let alone the dominant culture for centuries.

I asked a docent about this, and she admitted that though she had no love for the Hungarians herself, the museum's anti-Magyar policy was a bit odd even to her. Under Ceausescu, all of this would be expected (his policies pushed a strongly nationalistic Romanian line), but to see this nearly twenty years after his demise was startling.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:37 PM on June 2, 2010

The part of The Name of the Rose dealing with the comedy half of Aristotle's Poetics.
posted by fleacircus at 10:41 PM on June 2, 2010

Best answer: Fictional - in Harry Potter, Dumbledore (Hogwarts School's Headmaster) removes information about horcruxes (a particularly dark magic, used by Voldemort to render himself essentially immortal) from the school library. I actually discussed this with two librarians (geek alert!) at a Harry Potter conference - they were opposed to Dumbledore's actions.
posted by purlgurly at 10:44 PM on June 2, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for the quick and helpful ideas.

>Do you consider Nixon's Oval office tapes an "archive?"

Close enough. Definitely helps illustrate the point.

>"Real or fictional" becomes complicated when folks have an agenda.

Great point -- and fascinating links. I guess should clarify that I'm interested in examples drawn from fictional works as well as real-world examples.

>You will probably also enjoy Airbrushing History, American Style by the Cline Center for Democracy.

posted by GPF at 10:47 PM on June 2, 2010

Sandy Berger.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:21 PM on June 2, 2010

A young adult fantasy book called Winter of Fire. In a major scene, the protagonist, one of the "Quelled," breaks into a sealed, forbidden archive to read the history of her oppressed race, which has been kept secret to further the dominance of the "Chosen." Fantasy library with parchment scrolls and everything.
posted by ms.codex at 11:42 PM on June 2, 2010

The Rape of Nanking
posted by infini at 11:43 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another ancient example is the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. After she died, her stepson destroyed temples and defaced engravings of her name (as well as literally de-facing her statues). Opinions vary on whether he did so out of revenge (because she kept him from becoming pharaoh earlier) or because he did not want history to show the existence of a female ruler.
posted by freshwater at 12:03 AM on June 3, 2010

Didn't the Egyptians also do that with the "aten"/"amon" line?
posted by infini at 12:46 AM on June 3, 2010

The U.S. agreement to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey in the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was many years before this information came out.
posted by gudrun at 1:02 AM on June 3, 2010

How about the Roma and the Holocaust? While they were not exterminated in the same numbers as Jews, roughly the same percentage of their total number in Europe at the time was killed. So for them, it was an equivalent disaster. Yet it's rarely discussed. They were never offered reparations, never offered the chance to tell their story at any of the post-war trials. There was no talk of an independent state à la Israel. What's worse, even the illustrious writer and camp survivor, Elie Wiesel, fought bitterly to prevent commemoration the Roma people in the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, or allowing them any representation at all. Allegedly this is rooted in an event where a Romani capo in a concentration camp beat his father . . . but it's pretty astonishing that such an event (there were, of course, equally brutal Jewish capos) would cause a victim to try and erase knowledge of one of the most tragic events of an entire people. (For point of reference, I watched my parents be killed - not merely beaten - much more recently, and I would still acknowledge that many innocent Serbs were victims of aggression as well - a people who were to my family, in this analogy, more akin to the Nazis than the Gypsies, in Wiesel's history.) Simon Wiesenthal was outraged and embarrassed by this, and evidently fought Wiesel bitterly on the issue. It was a pretty appalling situation, still largely unresolved to anyone's satisfaction.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:52 AM on June 3, 2010

The Nasty Girl is the classic German film about this, and is based on a true story about Anna Rosmus.

If I remember correctly, this girl is trying to do research into her town's Nazi past, but all of the relevant documents are kept from her by the archivist, until one day there's a substitute archivist who doesn't realize that she's not supposed to have the key to this one cabinet, and then she gets her hands on that key, and she photocopies everything inside the cabinet, and she can finally tell the truth about the prominent figures in her town who were Nazis.

There's one sequence in particular that you could play if you wanted to use a movie clip.
posted by besonders at 3:49 AM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fictionally, I'd think crating up the Ark of the Covenant and hiding it in a warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark instead of having it studied might be up your alley. Also pretty much every Roswell/Area 51 pop culture reference out there seems appropriate.
posted by immlass at 6:21 AM on June 3, 2010

The movie Wag The Dog is about manufacturing an entire fictional Balkan crisis in order to divert attention away from a Presidential sex scandal.

Why does the dog wag it's tail?
Because if it were smarter, the tail would wag the dog.

posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:01 AM on June 3, 2010

China's Cultural Revolution seems to fit your criteria.
posted by workerant at 8:07 AM on June 3, 2010

A fictional example:
Private Practice (TV) season 2 episode 5, "Violet visits an old college friend, Kara Wei, who's running for Congress. She tells Vi her opponent is calling people in her past for dirt... She asks her to destroy her medical records. She confesses to Vi that she had shock therapy in college after her mother died. Vi says it's not a big deal nowadays. Kara wants the files to disappear. " from IMDB

So I'm not sure if medical files count as the kind of archive you're thinking of, but this one sprung to mind for me.
posted by Margalo Epps at 8:37 AM on June 3, 2010

Since Margalo Epps brought up Private Practice, I feel compelled to bring up The West Wing. The President's hidden MS is a subplot for most of season 1 and it comes back (naturally) to bit him in the ass in season 2. In particular, you might want to look at "In the Shadow of Two Gunman" and "17 People". Also "Bad Moon Rising" has, hands down, one of the funniest openings in the series (and would be a wonderful bit of video to work with).

(On reflection, I think this is closer to willful omission than covering up history. YMMV.)
posted by aureliobuendia at 9:18 AM on June 3, 2010

P.K.Dick, The Penultimate Truth, J.L.Borges, The Wall and the Books.
posted by nicolin at 12:30 PM on June 3, 2010

More Recently.
This article gets a little preachy, but it refers to textbook editing in Texas.
posted by purpletangerine at 1:59 PM on June 3, 2010

George W. Bush's Executive Order 13233.
posted by worldswalker at 4:20 PM on June 3, 2010

Specifically, Japan's deletion in history textbooks of their Rape of Nanking
posted by chalbe at 8:13 PM on June 3, 2010

I read the book "Rape of Nanking" - the combination of the atrocities committed on women along with the total denial of everything was one of the most horrific examples of man's inhumanity against man
posted by infini at 11:47 PM on June 3, 2010

Jorge Luis Borges' terrific short story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius is just the opposite - history is selectively rewritten to add events that never happened (in this case, an entire civilization).

Wikipedia synopsis.

The story.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:36 PM on June 6, 2010

Response by poster: Per metafilter prompting, I marked best answer for those that made their way into my presentation. Thanks for your help! Fascinating stuff all around.

I tried to work in the Hungarian story, but ran long as it was.
posted by GPF at 5:40 PM on July 4, 2010

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