Looking Back

Incriminating stuff rarely on hard copy

/ 12:28 AM January 13, 2017

“No document,” the late Teodoro Agoncillo growled into a tape recorder in 1984, “no history!”

Agoncillo’s area of expertise—the late 19th century—provided him with enough archival and library material to write his landmark works: “Revolt of the Masses: The Story of Andres Bonifacio and the Katipunan” (1956) and “Malolos Crisis of the Republic” (1960). Then, in 1965, he published “The Fateful Years,” a two-volume work on the Japanese Occupation in which he drew a compelling narrative not just from historical materials but also from his own experience of surviving the war.


When Ferdinand Marcos’ continued rule was being questioned and challenged by street rallies following the assassination of Ninoy Aquino in August 1983, Agoncillo was often asked how he would treat the Marcos period in an updated edition of his required collegiate Philippine history textbook. He replied that a historian needed perspective—in this case, at least a decade from actual or present events to see events more clearly.

I remember Agoncillo a lot these days as I explore the Marcos years, often asking myself how he would cope with the changing nature of documentation. The world has evolved so fast since he passed away in 1985; documents are not confined to paper anymore. We have “hard” copies and “soft” copies. E-mail has made snail mail almost obsolete. SMS and voice calls have made note- and letter-writing a fast-disappearing art.


More historical material is churned out these days than at any other time in the past, and the big challenges of the future will be access and validation. Millennials will not be able to imagine how their elders wrote manuscripts by longhand, typed out things on a “manual” or “electric” typewriter, and shifted to a complicated word processing program called Wordstar. Handwritten or typewritten documents are still accessible, but those composed on now obsolete programs cannot be accessed.

For example, the infamous Nixon Watergate tapes were made with “old technology” inaccessible unless material is transferred and continually updated into the new digital formats. Marcos kept a lot of memoranda on Dictaphone recordings, and I was told some of these tapes are still extant somewhere but cannot be accessed without a compatible player. Audio tapes on reels, or on cassettes, can be transferred easily to digital on players provided the tapes have not disintegrated due to moisture or become tangled in players or their containers. The same goes with video recordings.

When archived properly, extant presidential papers can provide material for many books and articles, but much material is not set on paper anymore because we communicate using SMS and e-mail. Then, of course, there are hardly any hard copies of incriminating material, and when these do exist they are disposed of with paper shredders. Many historians have profited from close inspection of historical papers, especially marginal notes that document important decisions. Today, even those have been compromised by small squares of yellow paper with an adhesive strip called Post-its, where important scribbles can mark a document and be removed when later convenient. I once asked a US diplomat why they were not allowed to keep journals, and he replied casually: “Because these can be subpoenaed.”

Of late I have invested a lot of time surfing the internet and reading declassified information from the “Foreign Relations of the United States” as well as Wiki-leaks—and seeing but a tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is so much material on our contemporary history waiting for Filipino historians in archives in the United States. Access is relatively easy; with a valid ID, you don’t need to know anyone high up to do research in the Library of Congress or the National Archives and Records Administration. And when you encounter a sensitive document, you can file for access under the Freedom of Information Act.

Research on presidential papers in the Philippines is more difficult because you first have to find out where these are kept. Then the next hurdle is gaining full access to them. The key to understanding our present seems to lie in the yet unwritten history of the second half of the 20th century.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: documentation, Ferdinand Marcos, History, martial law, Ninoy Aquino, research, Richard Nixon, teodoro agoncillo, Watergate, Wiki-leaks
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