From the Archivist to You

Ask the White House

 

This page originally appeared on the White House web site at "Ask the White House"
-- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the White House's "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.


January 17, 2006

Allen Weinstein
I welcome this opportunity, as Archivist of the United States, to meet with Americans on-line and respond to questions concerning the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Americans know us best for our headquarters building on the national mall in downtown Washington, D.C. There, in addition to housing the original of the Emancipation Proclamation and the Magna Carta among a billion documents (nine billion system-wide), you can find the originals of the "Charters of Freedom": the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Yesterday, the President visited the Archives to pay tribute on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to the Emancipation Proclamation which is housed there and displayed only several days each year. Many visitors ask "What is the Archives?" I look forward to responding to this and other questions you may have in the hour ahead.


Phyllis, from Richmond writes:
How did the Emancipation Proclamamtion come to "live" in the Archives and how come you only take it out a couple times a year?

Allen Weinstein
The Emancipation Proclamation was transferred to the National Archives from the State Department in 1936, two years after our downtown Washington headquarters was built. We can display the document only for a few days each year because of the need to preserve its fragile paper from decay.


Wes, from Norcross, Georgia writes:
Dear MrDr. Weinstein, As a historian myself, I am curious, where do gifts given to each President or First Family go if they do not wish to take them with them after they leave office? I know some of the First Lady's Innagural Ball gowns have gone to the Smithsonian, but how about gifts sent by leaders of the world, gifts to the family, etc? Thanks, Wes

Allen Weinstein
Virtually all gifts to the President and First Family become the property of the government and housed at their presidential libraries after the conclusion of a President's term of office. Quite often, former Presidents allow exhibits with these gifts, which have become a popular attraction at the presidential libraries.


adam, from valley writes:
what does the national archives do?

Allen Weinstein
Created in 1934, the National Archives now comprises four locations in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area (including our main preservation labs and the daily federal register), eleven presidential libraries with the papers of every president from Herbert Hoover to Bill Clinton (with the Nixon Library scheduled to join the system next year), fourteen regional archives and seventeen records centers, all scattered through twenty states with a $330 million plus budget and almost three thousand employees.

The archives is also a major center for encouraging civic education and the pursuit of U.S. history, and it is in the midst of a major $300 million program to develop an "electronic records archives" to begin solving the problem of organizing and processing for release documents originating from electronic hardware or software sources. One example: we expect the Bush Administration to deliver over one hundred million e-mails by its conclusion, compared to the 32 million e-mails delivered by the Clinton Administration. That is the briefest of introductions to our agency, which I and the other employees of the National Archives—an independent agency by congressional mandate since 1985—view as a solemn nonpartisan public trust.


Cajus, from Dallas writes:
Could you give a little insight into the history of our country's National Archivists and how the job has changed in our highly politicized times?

Allen Weinstein
I have responded to a previous questioner who asked about the history of the National Archives. However, let me address your question concerning "how the job [of Archivist] has changed in our highly politicized times?" First, I wonder whether these times are more "highly politicized" than previous generations. However intense the surrounding politics, the National Archivist remains totally professional and apolitical, reporting to Congress regularly concerning his Agency, which has been independent for 2l years. An example: the National Archives produced for the White House and both Democratic an Republican leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee over 79,000 pages of material related to then-Judge John Roberts and additional thousands of pages dealing with Judge Alito--all without criticism on partisanship, since there was none. I would add only that the Archivist's job is never dull.


Chris, from Rancho Palos Verdes, CA writes:
How long is your appointment?

Allen Weinstein
The National Archivist serves at the pleasure of the President,--every President, whether the one who appointed him or the ones who follow. Oversight of the National Archives, however, falls within Congress's responsibilities, and the office remains an absolutely nonpartisan one.


Mike, from Rocky River, OH writes:
Mr. Weinstein, What is it like to view our nation's historical documents during a time when freedom is spreading around the world? Thanks.

Allen Weinstein
What is it like for me, the National Archivist and son of pre-World War One immigrants to the United States? What is it like for me, a historian over four decades and author of a number of books and articles dealing with U.S. history? What is it like for me, who ran for two decades an organization devoted to assisting new democracies in the world, The Center for Democracy? In a word, it's terrific.


Daniel, from Lakeville, CT writes:
How can you find out if your relatives have documents in the National Archive? I wonder this because my great uncle was the Secretary of the Air Force under Pres. Eisonhower.

Allen Weinstein
First, Daniel, congratulations on your new notoriety. To find information regarding your great uncle, we have many reference tools online, or you can also write a letter to the Archives (address it to me). Two different sections of the National Archives would have information about your great uncle. The National Archives stores all of its military personnel records in St. Louis, Missouri in the National Personnel Records Center. To get copies of his Air Force service and medical records, you can go online to www.archives.gov website and click on records of veterans and their families. Because your great uncle was Secretary of the Air Force during the Eisenhower administration, you can also write or visit the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library to find out about his work under former President Eisenhower. You can find its address on the website: http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/. Now, let me introduce you to my assistant, David Brown, who has been doing a bit of detective work on your behalf. Take it away, David.

David Brown
According to the Eisenhower Library there were four Secretary's of the Air Force under President Eisenhower. They were: Harold E. Talbott; Donald A. Quarles; James H. Douglas; and Dudley C. Sharpe. Which one of them is your great uncle? Please contact my colleagues at the Eisenhower Library and the other NARA location mentioned to learn more.


Nicole, from Seattle writes:
How many Presidents have visited the National Archives within the last fifty years?

Allen Weinstein
To the best of my knowledge, every President since Herbert Hoover (who laid the cornerstone at the Archives building in downtown Washington, D.C.) to President George W. Bush has visited the National Archives. President Bush has visited the Archives several times, and we have hosted an array of American dignitaries (from all three branches of government and both parties) as well a number of distinguished foreign heads of state and government. We are most proud, however, of serving the American public, and one million visitors toured the Rotunda and Public Vaults exhibit and other features of the National Archives in 2005 alone. We look forward to welcoming YOU and your family, school, civic association, church or neighborhood group in the year ahead. I look forward personally to that!


John, from Pittsburgh writes:
My family and I are planning a trip to DC this summer and would love to come by the archives. Any new exhibits in the works for this year? Given that our time is short, as is the attention span of our kids, what documents or featured items do you suggest we try and see while visiting the archives?

Allen Weinstein
I suggest that your visit to what we call "The National Archives Experience" at our downtown Washington, D.C. headquarters begin with a stopover at the Rotunda to view the "Charters of Freedom," Magna Carta, and related documents on exhibit there.

I would then plan on spending time at our "public vaults" exhibit, arguably the liveliest and most informative interactive exhibit on American history anywhere in the world—also the most fun of any you will ever see. Judge for yourself, and as an added incentive, I will lead you on that tour myself, an offer I will extend also to others whose questions I am answering today on "Ask the White House."


Freddie, from California writes:
What do you think is the most inspiring document at National Archives?What significance does it have to you?

Allen Weinstein
I find the "Charters of Freedom" collectively—the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution (including the Bill of Rights)—the most inspiring documents of the American Republic. As the son of immigrant parents, who sought and received refuge in the United States—our wonderful "Nation of Nations" — fleeing from a tyrannical regime to reach these shores, I take special pride in my current role as archivist, charged with protecting these prime testaments of American democracy.


Jonathan, from St. Louis, MO writes:
I was wondering if there has ever been a traveling tour of any of the archives collections? If so, will there be one in the near future? If not, why not? Thank you. Allen Weinstein
The National Archives have had several traveling exhibits. Mostly recently, "American Originals: Treasures from the National Archives" toured the country, stopping at 9 cities during its 2 1/2 years on the road. The closest stop to St. Louis was Union Station in Kansas City, Mo. We currently have a photo exhibit on the road, "Picturing the Century: 100 Years of Photography from the National Archives." The Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit service is handling the arrangements for its travel and you can check its website for the schedule. Next fall, we will have a second traveling exhibit of photos, "The Way We Worked," touring the country. You should be able to check our website for the schedule.

Finally, beginning next spring we will have another major exhibit of documents touring the country for two years, "Eyewitness: American Originals from the National Archives." This exhibit will be shown at the National Archives building from June 23, 2006 - January 1, 2007, and then travel to 6 museums over the next two years. The exhibit will feature first person accounts of some of the most dramatic moments in history, and many have never been exhibited before.


Bryan, from Des Moines writes:
Are there any Dr. Martin Luther King documents in the archives?

Allen Weinstein
There is a range of papers that refer to Dr. King at the National Archives but no central collection of his writings. Three of the country’s leading repositories for the papers of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. can be found at Stanford University, Boston University, and under control of the King family. Many of the FBI and justice department investigative files concerning MLK here at the archives are closed to researchers. There are records in our regional facility in Atlanta, and there are no doubt letters, telegrams, photographs, and other records in the Kennedy and Johnson Presidential libraries.


Troy, from Memphis, TN writes:
When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, was an immediate impact felt, or did it take some time to get the word out that it had been proclaimed. Also, did it make news all over the world?

Allen Weinstein
Within the United States, President Lincoln’s announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 had been widely anticipated because of his announcement in mid-1862 of a "preliminary" Emancipation Proclamation to be made final the following January first. Debates raged throughout the northern States, especially between abolitionists and other supporters of early and complete slave emancipation and those, on the contrary, who believed that the primary aim of the North should remain restoring the Union and ending secession, even at the cost of allowing slavery to continue for a time in the southern States. Similar divisions characterized European response to the proclamation and, yes, the document did "make news all over the world."

Although many slave owners in the Confederate and border States tried to withhold knowledge of the Emancipation Proclamation from their bondsmen, there is persuasive evidence that most slaves learned by one means or another of the document and so began reflecting on their options: to stay in place or to flee enslavement for the uncertainties of life in a Union military camp or possible service in the Union army. The best recent historical study of the episode is a lively scholarly study by Professor Allen C. Guelzo: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America.


Colin, from Seal Beach, California writes:
Mr Weinstein-- What causes a document to need to be "restored"? What steps are taken to ensure that this is done properly? How often must an important document (such as the constitution)undergo this process. Thank you for your time to do this. -Colin

Allen Weinstein
First, it is important to know that the National Archives take many important steps to ensure that all of the documents in its care, including the most significant ones such as the U.S. Constitution and Emancipation Proclamation, are preserved. This means that records are stored and handled in ways that will help to make sure that they are available to American citizens long into the future. Records are stored under good environmental conditions to help ensure chemical stability, and everyone--staff and researchers--is required to handle records safely in ways that will not cause damage. Records that have been used a lot in the past--as well as those that may have been damaged even before they were acquired by the National Archives--sometimes need preservation attention to make sure that the information they contain will continue to be available. Archivists work with preservation specialists and conservators to establish plans for preserving the records. Sometimes this means that heavily used records are copied or microfilmed, which protects original records from excessive handling.

The Charters of Freedom--Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution, and Bill of Rights--were examined and received conservation treatment between 1999 and 2003. They are stored and exhibited under very carefully controlled conditions, and are also monitored on a regular basis to evaluate their condition. For these reasons, it is not anticipated that they will need any future treatment for many decades, at a minimum. By providing preservation safeguards, the need for additional treatment is avoided, and that is our goal.


Joel, from Superior, WI writes:
Mr. Weinstein, What do you feel is the most valuable item you have on display? Also, what is the oldest or most historical item you have on display?

Allen Weinstein
The oldest item we have on display is undoubtedly the Magna Carta, a later 1297 version and not the earliest 1215 Magna Carta, but without a doubt the oldest item on display. It is on loan from its owner, Mr. Ross Perot, and highly popular with the more than one million visitors we hosted at the archives in 2005. The "most valuable" document in pure monetary terms might be either the originals of the "Charters of Freedom"; and the "most historical" or historically-important item could well be an unresolvable toss-up among the three "Charters of Freedom," the Magna Carta, and the Emancipation Proclamation—or another of the one billion documents in the building.


Pete, from Kentucky writes:
Hello Mr. Weinstein, we recently saw the movie National Treasure with Nick Cage and wanted to know how close the movie comes to reality in regard to the National Archives' high-tech gadgets protecting the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The movie was pretty cool, but how much was Hollywood and how much was real?

Allen Weinstein
Hi, Pete. I agree with you that the movie "National Treasure" was "pretty cool," and I have invited its producers to preview any sequel at the National Archives. The movie's reconstruction of our Rotunda was spectacular, and the film has undoubtedly encouraged some visitors to put us on their Washington, D.C. schedule. However, the movie (90% Hollywood, 10% real) does not even come close to describing the actual security protections we give to the "Charters of Freedom." Two cautions for our visitors: 1. We have successfully prosecuted in the past those few bad guys who try to pilfer even the least important of our documents, all of which belong to the American people. And 2. If there had been a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, as the movie states, lemon juice would not be the answer to uncovering it!

P.S. My personal favorite title for any sequel: "Raiders of the Lost Archives."


Jason, from Cleveland, Ohio writes:
Mr Weinstein, I have never been to the Archives but I do plan to go in the near future. My question for you is what kind of feeling do you get when you see these important historical documents right in front of you? I imagine it's a feeling of awe. Thanks.

Allen Weinstein
Jason, I cannot begin to describe the feeling of awe and responsibility that I feel every day that I come to work at the Archives. For an American historian like me, who has also spent several decades working to assist countries transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, I feel uniquely privileged to serve as Archivist of the United States, working with my colleagues to protect, expand, and make readily available to the public America’s documentary heritage. I look forward to seeing you at the National Archives very soon.


Allen Weinstein
I want to thank everyone who submitted questions, and I regret that time did not allow me to respond to all of them. I hope that I have an opportunity to meet most of you during your next visit to the National Archives - and, if you have asked a question that we did not deal with today, I will address these in person. A few words in closing. I view the three great "Charters of Freedom" - the founding documents of our country - as providing unbreakable links in describing the rights and responsibilities of the American people. From the beginning of the American Republic, these principles have had a global reach in a world filled with despots, then as now, in which ordinary people dream of and fight for freedom, individual rights, and the rule of law. As Archivist of the United States, I confront awesome responsibilities designated by the President and the Congress as a custodian of America's national memory. This involves an obligation to preserve and assure timely, maximum access to our governmental records in the evolving historic saga of the American people.

On a personal note, I view my work as Archivist as a way of giving back to this great country, a small measure of what the United States has given to me and my family. Thank you for your interest and attention, and I look forward to seeing you at the National Archives.

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