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Sean Kelly, Political Science Professor, Opens Congressional Archives In The Classroom

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Some 2,700 miles away from Washington, D.C., political science professor Sean Kelly and his students aim to shine a more penetrating light on how Congress and congressional representatives truly work.

Under Kelly's direction this fall, students at California State University-Channel Islands in Camarillo will dig into rarely touched archives of individual lawmakers -- their personal notes and staff memos, as well as floor statements and votes, that together reveal the cold, hard reality of congressional decision-making.

"Woodrow Wilson, way before he became president, was a political scientist, and he said, essentially, that Congress on the floor is Congress on display, but Congress at work is Congress in committee," said Kelly. "I would go one further and sort of say that Congress at work is not only in committee but what they are doing in their offices."

The papers of individual lawmakers, especially those below the top leadership tier, have not traditionally received much attention from political science researchers, in part because they're hard to access. "The papers of individual members of Congress are considered their property, and they can gift them to any repository of their liking," said Kelly. "Usually they give their papers to a college or university in their district; sometimes they will deed them to their alma mater or to a local historical society. As a result, these collections are spread out across the country in repositories that have limited resources to make them available to the public."

In Kelly's class, titled "Inside the Black Box: Politics in the Archives," students will begin by examining the papers of the late Rep. Harold T. "Bizz" Johnson, a Northern California Democrat who served from 1959 to 1981.

"Harold Johnson's career spanned one of the more contentious periods of our history, which included civil rights legislation, Watergate and the [attempted] Nixon impeachment, and the Vietnam War," Kelly said. "Like people throughout that period, Johnson’s constituents were often bitterly at odds on the issues of the day."

Faced with vigorous social debate, a congressional representative must walk a fine line, sometimes standing up against and sometimes capitulating to pressure from the voters. "We have these very high-profile kinds of social issues, war issues, economic issues, where we can challenge the students to think about representation and think about how difficult it really is to faithfully represent all of the people in your district, and sometimes do what's best for the country as well," Kelly said.

The professor also chose Johnson for students' first archival dive because his university was able to obtain Johnson's records from California State University-Chico, which did not have the resources to make the documents more widely available. So Chico State sent over the records.

Kelly, who recently co-authored the book "Doing Archival Research in Political Science," described this kind of research as comparatively rare in political science. "It's a great experiment. It's the kind of thing that does happen sometimes more often in history [studies], but in political science, I haven't heard of anybody doing it," he said.

Political scientists often look to more easily accessible online databases, such as EBSCO and JSTOR, available through college libraries. They provide studies on international relations, economics and domestic policy.

But the papers of individual lawmakers are near impossible to locate online, Kelly said, adding, "The only collection that is wholly online, that I know of, is the papers of the late Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.)."

Happily for scholars of Sen. Heinz, he was an heir to the founder of the H.J. Heinz Company. Lacking a grant from a wealthy family, Kelly said, putting a political career's worth of personal papers into an online database is usually too complex and costly, and such collections can languish in physical archives in each lawmaker's district.

That's why Kelly -- who also co-authored the conventional wisdom-bucking "Cheese Factories on the Moon: Why Earmarks Are Good for American Democracy" -- needs the aid of his students and fellow faculty members, especially university librarian Matt Cook, to get this project up and running. In working on the Johnson papers, the students will also be helping to organize the collection. And part of the collection will be put online, Kelly said, "for the world to see."

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