20th Anniversary of the National Archives and Records Administration Panel Discussion
Comments by David B. McMillen, Minority Staff Member, Committee in Government Reform and Oversight, U.S. House of Representatives
Friday, May 20, 2005
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won't come again
And don't speak too soon
For the wheel's still in spin
And there's no tellin' who
That it's namin'.
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin'. 1
Those lyrics ring as true today as they did 40 years ago when Bob Dylan was turning the music world upside down, and we were all teenagers. Those words are true even for the world of archives and archivists. We are here today celebrating 20 years of independence, and to look forward to the challenges that face the archives of the 21st Century.
Dr. Weinstein, as the ninth Archivist of The National Archives faces a unique set of challenges as the records keeper for the nation. For lack of a better taxonomy, I have identified those challenges as social-structural, technological, and political.
I have asked each of our panelists to describe their views on the challenges that face the Archivists.
As the Archivist has learned all to quickly, the world doesn't wait for you to get up to speed, or bend to your priorities. Even before his agenda was set, Archivist Weinstein was challenged by public relations disasters on each coast. The Nixon Library cancelled a conference that many had characterized as a signal that the Library would be a good steward of the papers now housed in Washington. Critics of transferring those papers to California ceased upon the cancellation as proof that the Nixon papers wouldn't stop in Yorba Linda, but that the trucks would drive right on out into the Pacific Ocean. Not long after that, newspapers reported that the FDR Library told voter advocacy groups that they couldn't hold a planned forum on Social Security reform because the panel did not have someone supporting the Administration's plan. The Archivist must deal with Presidents who want to change the rules of access to their records, and administrations that no longer make records for fear of how those records might be used against them. Even in a democracy as robust as ours, the National Archives is a relatively new invention, and our legislative commitment to open government even more recent.
My characterizations of these events don't do justice to the complexity of the issues. The point I am trying to make is that external events often sidetrack the Archivist's agenda no matter how well crafted. I am pleased to report that by all accounts the Archivist and his staff handled both of these potential crises quite deftly.
The second challenge, technological change, is the one everyone loves to talk about. Suddenly, the Archives is not something of dusty boxes of crumbling paper stacked row upon row in sterile warehouses. Now the Archives is the center of the e-revolution challenged with solving the permanent public preservation of the electrons of our paperless government. When will we have full text searching capabilities of the entire collection?
The category of social-structural challenges includes many of the management challenges that face the archives. The Archives must convince reluctant actors across the government to properly assess and schedule their records. At the same time, the Archives must deal with a constant flow of request for access to the existing collection. The Archivist must impart to the staff his vision for the agency, and then instill in them his enthusiasm for that task. What vision do you give your staff to lead the way to this new archives that will make them want to turn the world upside down, to fight with every agency for a more complete record of their business? What direction will you give them to develop policies for assessing and collecting electronic communications -- emails, cell phone text messages, video conferences, and blogs -- to assure a complete record of how and why decisions are made? What must be done to make the records of today and yesterday more accessible to a wider audience?
1 Dylan, Bob, The Times They Are A-Changin', fourth verse from the album by the same title, Columbia Records (Feb. 10, 1964).