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“Effective FOIA Requesting for Researchers”: A Document Hound’s Paradise

January 25, 2010

The Archive's FOIA Handbook

Last year’s “Effective FOIA Requesting for Researchers” workshop was awesome.  It brought together document hounds from around the country and provided advice and expertise on how to file successful FOIA requests, as only the National Security Archive could.  If you are using FOIA for your graduate research, I absolutely recommend applying to attend this year’s workshop, sponsored by the National Security Archive and the George Washington University’s Institute for European Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES).

Last year’s program kicked off with a rousing speech by Archive Director Thomas Blanton about the importance of Freedom of Information.  He explained how the early Finnish pine tar trade, Elvis’s belt buckle, and Iran Contra were all linked to the Freedom of Information Act.  (You’ll have to attend this year’s work shop to find out how!)

After that, the majority of the workshop was devoted to instruction by the Archive’s experts on how to use FOIA to make your research great.  Helpful answers, tailored to each attendee’s subject of interest, were given to such stumpers as:  Should I file an MDR or FOIA?  How should I phrase my request to get a quicker, more forthcoming response?  And, how what should I do to write a great appeal?  Oh yeah, the FOIA guide that the Archive gives to each attendee is simply wonderful; it’s the most thumbed through reference work in my house.

I was researching the 1983 “Able Archer War Scare,” so I was especially riveted as William Burr spoke about techniques he used to get nuclear secrets (such as “Eik’s Hair Trigger”) declassified.  I also learned that that I had only sent requests to a fraction of the agencies which might have information I desire—and which ones I should target and send off additional (finely crafted) requests.  Since FOIA Friday, every appeal which I have written has been much stronger than my earlier “stabs in the dark.”

I was also able to chat with a slew researchers also studying the Reagan era.  It was invaluable to hear tips on research at the Reagan Presidential Library, commiserate about over-classification, talk about our FOIA successes, and swap hot Reagan docs.  Mingling with fellow FOIAers from my field really helped my research.

So, if you’re on the fence about apply to this year’s FOIA Workshop… Get off it!  If you love documents and using the Freedom of Information act to get them, you will be on the edge of your seat all day.  The info you’ll learn about FOIA from the Archive’s experts (as well as attendees) will give your dissertation or thesis a gigantic boost.  Spots are limited, so send your  application ASAP (February 1st, at the latest)!

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