Should I be reading this?

Written by Justine Rothbart


“Won’t you please destroy? You are not always careful with letters, and if you destroy, you won’t need to be careful.” (Harding to Phillips, Jan. 26, 1915, from San Francisco’s Palace Hotel, where Harding died in 1923, regarding their correspondence)

President Warren Harding’s love letters to Carrie Fulton-Phillips (from 1910 to 1920) are now open to the public

Warren Harding requested Carrie Fulton-Phillips to destroy the letters. These letters, written from 1910 to 1920, express details about an affair between the future president and his mistress. Even after Harding’s request, the letters were never destroyed. They were hidden in a box and then later kept in the Library of Congress’ “vault.” One hundred years later, the letters are now available to the public.

With just the click of your mouse, you can now dive into the personal relationship of Harding and Phillips. You can read their secrets. Their hopes. Their fears. You might feel as if you’ve stumbled upon a treasure-trove. It might seem as if you found these letters in a shoe box under someone’s bed. As you discover the shoe box and curl up with a flashlight in hand, you might think to yourself, “Should I be reading this?”

Last month I wrote a blog post about recently discovered personal letters written by Jackie Kennedy (What would Jackie Do?). Eventually, after strong opposition to publicly revealing her personal and private thoughts, the letters were removed from auction. The Kennedy family are now involved in “how to preserve and curate” the letters.

How are Jackie Kennedy’s letters different from President Harding’s? One major difference is time. The Harding letters were written over forty years earlier. They were written during the time of the Titanic sinking and during the time of World War I. Or to put it into further context, they were written between series 1 and 3 of Downton Abbey. 

This brings up the question: “How soon is ‘too soon’?” People often find it respectable to read private information with the passing of a certain amount of time. But the amount of time is debatable. Even if the associated people have passed away, their legacy needs to be taken into consideration. Their privacy needs to be respected. But do we expect all archival institutions to be one giant vault where we lock the door and throw away the key?


Privacy needs to be respected, yes. But as time passes, so does information. As archivists, one of our main ethical pillars is to provide everyone access to information. As news broke about the revealing of these letters, the number of hits on Warren G. Harding’s Wikipedia page  must have skyrocketed. People need to refresh their memories (or learn for the first time) who Warren G. Harding was. I’m sure many people say, “Who is Harding?”  or “Is that Carson from Downton Abbey?” (Ok, that’s my last Downton Abbey reference).

The time the letters spent sitting on a shelf, the memory of President Harding was slipping away. Maybe that’s when we know enough time has passed. Or maybe that’s when we realize it’s too late.

The past few weeks in our Special Collections class, we have had behind-the-scenes tours of several special collections in Washington, D.C. We were lucky enough to have a tour of the Library of Congress’ Manuscript Division where the Harding letters were housed since 1972. (We did not see the letters because they were not available to be seen by the public until today – July 29, 2014). Through our tours, we have learned there’s always a balancing act between privacy and access.

Maybe there’s never a right answer only the best answer. Either way, I hope this starts (or continues) the discussion.

And whether you feel it’s appropriate or not, you can start reading President Harding’s love letters here:


For more information on President Warren Harding’s love letters, here’s today’s news release from the Library of Congress:



What Would Jackie Do?

Written by Justine Rothbart


The Rev. Joseph Leonard with Jacqueline Kennedy, then Bouvier, at All Hallows College in Dublin in 1950.

The Rev. Joseph Leonard with Jacqueline Kennedy, then Bouvier, at All Hallows College in Dublin in 1950.


Continuing with my fascination obsession with the Kennedys, I’ve decided to write a blog post on, yet again, the Kennedys. The other day while I was reading the Washington Post, this article caught my eye: Jacqueline Kennedy’s Letters to Irish Priest Pulled From Auction Amid Controversy. A few weeks earlier, I remember hearing the news of how newly discovered letters written by Jackie Kennedy will be put on auction. All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland originally put the letters on auction to help their financially struggling institution. These 31 letters were written by Jackie Kennedy to an Irish priest, Father Leonard, from 1950 to 1964. She started writing these letters when she was 21, which was long before she knew her future fame. They include very personal information about topics such as marriage and faith. Since the announcement, there has been strong opposition. Many people say putting these letters up for auction is an invasion of Jackie Kennedy’s privacy. Several think it’s disrespectful to financially benefit from someone else’s private information. Diana Reese, from the Washington Post, said “Privacy is becoming an artifact.”

The common question being asked is, “What would Jackie Do?”


Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s correspondence with Father Joseph Leonard were recently pulled from auction

Would she want these letters to be available to the public? What does she want us to do?

As archivists, we are constantly asking those questions. We try to balance privacy and access gracefully (as gracefully as Jackie). Sometimes, however, the answer is not clear. Putting the letters on auction is, yes, technically legal. But is it moral? Who decides what’s right and wrong?

For some historians, this discovery has been described as a “treasure trove.” Some call it the “autobiography she never wrote.” However, as Reese reminds us, Jackie Kennedy was a very private person who chose not to write her own memoir. Her feelings expressed in these letters were probably only intended to remain between her and the priest.

For many of us, our initial instinct is to read and share these letters. But I think we often forget that archival materials are linked to real people. Real feelings. Real emotions. We need to take a step back from our first instinct and try to walk in Jackie’s shoes. If Jackie Kennedy did not write her own memoir, maybe she wouldn’t want to share these letters. It was recently announced that they are “now exploring with members of Mrs. Kennedy’s family how best to preserve and curate this archive for the future.” I am happy to hear that Kennedy family is now involved and trying to figure out the best solution.

So what does the future hold for these letters? We don’t know. Right now we don’t know if they will become publicly available in the future or if they’ll be locked away forever. But the question we are all trying to figure out is…what would Jackie do?