About the National Archives

Ready Access to Essential Evidence: The National Archives and Records Administration


John W. Carlin
Archivist of the United States


Address to the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies Conference, July 20, 2003


I have been looking forward to this event, because, as the Archivist of the United States, I spend a good bit of time telling people why records are important, and why the National Archives and Records Administration is dedicated to preserving and providing access to the records of our people and our nation.

But here I am very pleased to have an audience of people who appreciate the value of records, and know exactly how important they can be in understanding the past, holding Government officials accountable for their actions, and claiming rights and entitlements.

That said, let's talk about some things of mutual interest.

To start, for the last two years, the National Archives Building has been undergoing a much-needed renovation, while keeping the building open for research. This has created a dusty, often noisy environment for both staff and researchers, but most important, access has continued.

During this time, we have also done conservation work on the Charters of Freedom—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—and re-encased them in new, state-of-the-art cases designed to protect the documents for generations to come.

On September 18th the Charters of Freedom will be put back on public display in the newly renovated Rotunda, so that anyone who wishes can see the parchment of the Declaration of Independence, once held by Thomas Jefferson, the signatures penned by the Founding Fathers to ratify the Constitution, and the exact words that spell out our basic rights as Americans.

The Charters of Freedom are the most well known and highest profile documents we care for, and for years more than a million people annually would come to the National Archives in Washington, DC, just to see them. But most of these people left without even knowing of the millions of invaluable records that lie on the other side of the Rotunda walls.

As genealogists, you know the records to which I am referring.

Census rolls from 1790 through 1930—snapshots of the individuals who shaped our country...

Military records of the courageous men and women who have served in our armed forces...

Passport applications going back to 1795...

And ships' passenger lists documenting the immigrants who followed their dreams to start a new life in America.

It is in these seemingly routine Government documents that we can catch a glimpse of an ancestor's life as they answer questions of an enumerator, enlist in the Army, or see the shores of their new home for the first time.

You all know exactly what I mean when I say that the history of our country is found not only in Constitutional amendments and Presidential proclamations but also in the records of individuals... records that tell the stories of individuals, families, and communities.

As Historian David McCullough, a good friend of the National Archives says, our records tell us who we are, what we have achieved, our adventures, and what we stand for.

And, while you are familiar with some of the records we have, particularly the ones that can serve as the building blocks for family research, I bet it might surprise you to learn that one of the oldest documents in the Archives is a fragment of an ancient Hebrew manuscript with a passage relating to Jewish laws regarding work on the Sabbath.

It dates back to around the year 1122, obviously long before the United States, let alone the National Archives of the United States, was even envisioned. So how does a piece of manuscript from halfway around the world that is more than 900 years old come to be in the holdings of the National Archives?

Well, this fragment once belonged to an American manuscript collector who was living in Palestine. In 1915, his house was ransacked by Turkish cavalry men who threw many of his possessions into the rain-soaked streets.

Seeking compensation for his losses, the American gathered several fragments from the destroyed manuscripts, including this one, and submitted them, along with a claim, to the Turkish government, through the U.S. State Department. Having been received by the Federal Government, they became records and were eventually transferred to the National Archives.

Simply put, this fragment of an ancient Jewish manuscript was submitted to the U.S. Government in support of a claim made by a private U.S. citizen, thus illustrating an important point for genealogical researchers. Because the National Archives holds Government records, the key to finding information on an individual many times, is to explore all the possible connections between that person and the U.S. Government.

Sometimes this connection is straightforward, such as in the case of census and immigration records, but sometimes the connection is not as quickly evident. This can be the case when dealing with records of assets stolen by the Nazis during World War Two. I know you have heard of this so called "Nazi Gold," but perhaps you have not considered that genealogical information can be found in these records.

In March of 1996, Senator Alfonse D'Amato sent researchers to the National Archives to look for information about Jewish dormant bank accounts in Swiss banks. He had been asked to look into this issue by the World Jewish Congress who believed that there were billions of dollars in accounts that had been established by Jews as a means of keeping their assets from the Nazis, and the Swiss banks were making it difficult, if not impossible, for survivors of the Holocaust and the heirs of victims of Nazi persecution to retrieve their money.

Very early in the research efforts, records were found that contained detailed information about Jewish deposits in a Swiss bank. This discovery quickly launched a major, worldwide research effort into Holocaust-era assets bringing hundreds and hundreds of researchers to our College Park, Maryland, facility.

Details of what can arguably be called the greatest robbery in history came to light.

In the holdings of the National Archives are well over fifteen million pages of documents relating to the looting, locating, and recovery of assets during and after World War II.

The records have produced evidence of looted gems, stolen artwork and other property, unpaid insurance accounts, and unclaimed bank accounts—information that has been used by Holocaust survivors and their heirs to reclaim their property, and in so doing, has shown the world again the power of records.

But these Holocaust-era records can also be untapped sources of genealogical information. For within the records of seized bank accounts and property is information such as the names, addresses, occupations and other facts on the owners. Also, after the war, many survivors went to American embassies for assistance in recovering their property. And many descendents of Holocaust victims did the same.

This connection to the U.S. Government produced Government records, such as claim files of the State Department and Foreign Service Posts, which can be used to trace family history. However, using these records for family research is a bit more difficult than using census records or military records. Consequently, you may have to dig even deeper for information.

We do have a finding aid that may help—it's titled Holocaust-Era Assets: A Finding Aid to Records at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and includes descriptions of records related to Nazi looted art and gold; unpaid and unclaimed insurance policies; and the U.S. post war role in locating looted assets—just to give a few examples. You'll find it on our web site at www.archives.gov on the "Publications" page.

Again, records related to seized assets of the World War Two era show very clearly the role records can play in bringing the truth to light and turning history into justice. For throughout history in times of crisis documentary evidence takes center stage. For it is the proof of how governments have treated their citizens and it allows those governments to be held accountable for their actions.

In those nations where people are denied "unalienable rights"... where dictators decide who suffers, who prospers, who lives, and who dies... where governments are not "of the people, by the people, and for the people", but of the few, by the few, and for the few... records that document the actions of public officials can be incriminating.

Of course, here in the United States, the American people are able to inspect for themselves the record of what their government has done. Here the actions of Government officials are documented, and those officials can be held accountable to the citizens they serve. And it's in this way that records form the very foundation of our democracy, a fact that cannot be over emphasized.

Along these lines, it might interest you to know that recently two conservators from the National Archives answered a request from White House staff at the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad to examine a collection of Jewish records and religious material that had been damaged by water, and subsequently mold, during the war.

During a week-long trip to Baghdad, the conservators assessed the condition of the collection and are now working on a recommendation for treatment of the materials.

It may also interest you to know that the National Archives is collaborating with the Commission for Commemorating 350 years of American Jewish History. An exhibition celebrating 350 years of Jewish settlement in America will open in September of next year.

The exhibition will feature records from the National Archives, as well as from the Library of Congress, American Jewish Archives, and American Jewish Historical Society. A version of the exhibition will travel around the country, and the commission is also planning activities including symposia, scholarly programs, and a film series.

Now that I've talked a bit about how the records of the past can impact the future, I want to tell you a little about how we at the National Archives are working today to preserve and provide access to records that haven't even been created yet.

You see, until about a decade ago, the records NARA held were, for the most part, physical—meaning they were papers and photos, films and audio and videotapes, or other artifacts such as evidence from court cases or Presidential gifts. But today electronic records dominate and pose the biggest challenge ever to recordkeeping in both the Government and the private sector.

The rapid evolution of information technology has produced huge volumes of diverse and complex digital records. When you combine the rate of technological obsolescence with the explosive number of electronic records being created by the government every day, then you can begin to imagine the challenge that we face of providing access over time to authentic records many generations of technology later.

The problem is like trying to play an eight-track tape or trying to get information from one of those five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy disks from just a few years ago. Today's software can't read the information on the disk, and it can't even be inserted into most computers today. The information on that disk is basically irretrievable. And tragically, this will be the case with all digital records over time unless a solution is found.

The Electronic Records Archives—or ERA—is our strategic response to the challenge of preserving, managing, and providing access to electronic records. ERA, when completed, will authentically preserve and provide access to any kind of electronic record, free from dependency on any specific hardware or software.

Our goal is to build an archives that can keep the essential records of government retrievable, readable, and authentic for as long as they remain valuable. And that time frame ranges from a few years to hundreds of years into the future.

ERA will make Government records available to anyone, at any time, and in any place, for as long as needed and the system will be scalable to serve public and private needs of all sizes. We've recently launched the first component of ERA, which may be helpful to you in your research. To meet the need to provide web access to electronic records, we created a system called Access to Archival Databases, or AAD. AAD allows researchers to search, view, and retrieve records from selected Government databases directly through the Internet.

It includes more than 400 database files that contain more than 50 million unique records including casualties from the Vietnam and Korean conflicts, and information on World War Two POWs. You can access AAD by going to the "Research Room" area of our web site.

Right now we are working with partners and potential users to further define the requirements of the Electronic Records Archives. And next year, we plan to contract for the design and development of the ERA.

We know building the Electronic Records Archives and solving the challenges of preserving electronic records is not and will not be easy, but there is simply no alternative. If we don't succeed, vital records will not only be lost, but the very foundation of our Democracy will be severely undermined.

The fact is that records matter...

Whether they are paper documents... photos... or videotapes, or electronic databases...

And whether they enumerate the population, verify an individual right, provide accountability of a Government action, or document the National Experience.

Records do matter.

And it was this recognition that gave us at the National Archives the inspiration for a unique and powerful project...The National Archives Experience.

As I mentioned previously, for years, people from all over the world came to the National Archives to see the Charters of Freedom and reacted with awe. But it seemed, unlike researchers, that they left hardly realizing where they had been, or learning much about the Charters or about the millions of other records at the National Archives.

It was this thought that compelled us, with the help and support of the Foundation for the National Archives, to develop a plan to create exciting and interactive components with educational value for everyone.

We call this the National Archives Experience. The National Archives Experience is in essence a journey—a journey through time and a journey through American struggles and triumphs.

The Charters of Freedom in the Rotunda will be the core of the Experience, accompanied by an expanded exhibit on the creation of the Charters and their continuing relevance today.

The National Archives Experience will continue in what we are calling the Public Vaults, interactive exhibition spaces that will convey the feeling of going beyond the walls of the Rotunda into the stacks and vaults of the National Archives.

In the central corridor of the Public Vaults will be the Record of America, which will explore the transformation of records, from the earliest Native American treaties to Presidential web sites, and not just ink and paper, but photos, films, sound recordings, and databases—all the forms of evidence by which we know the past.

The interactive experiences of the Public Vaults will draw their themes from the Preamble to the Constitution.

We the People is focused on genealogical records. Here visitors might help an elderly woman prove her citizenship, or discover whether records of their family are in the Archives.

To Form a More Perfect Union features evidence and judgments from civil rights cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and some of the great debates of Congress.

In Promote the General Welfare, visitors might be transported back to the day man first walked on the Moon or uncover surprising inventions and patents from the 19th century.

In Provide for the Common Defense, visitors might become a filmmaker using records to create a moment of film on D-day or stand in the shoes of the President during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

And finally, To Ourselves and Our Posterity illustrates how a document becomes an Archives record and explains the challenge of reading electronic records in the 23rd century. This part of the National Archives Experience is slated to open in the fall of 2004.

Within the Public Vaults will lie records that tell the stories of America.

From the naturalization papers of Vladimir Horowitz...

To the arrest record of Susan B. Anthony made when she illegally cast her vote in a Presidential election...

To Irving Berlin's original score of "God Bless America," given as a gift to Richard Nixon...

To Rosa Parks's fingerprints...

To Albert Einstein's letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt on the necessity of atomic research.

These are the stories of the struggles, and courage and triumphs of our people and our nation.

Another component of the National Archives Experience, which will open in the spring of next year is a new 294-seat theater. By day, it will show a dramatic film illustrating the relationship of records and democracy through the lives of real people. By night, the theater will feature documentary films, and also serve as a forum for lectures, seminars, and debates.

Other highlights of the National Archives Experience that will be rolled out later include a Special Exhibition Gallery and a Learning Center.

The National Archives Experience will have its final, and maybe most important, component on the Internet with a web site that will recreate online much of the physical excitement of visiting the National Archives Experience as well as be a gateway to the vast and rich records of the National Archives itself.

For it is through the Internet we will achieve our strategic goal— taking the records to the people regardless of where they live as well as reaching out to folks around the world.

We were very fortunate that the National Archives Experience, and especially the theater, captured the imagination and creativity of the late filmmaker Charles Guggenheim. In the year before his death, Charles served as the President of the Foundation for the National Archives, the not-for-profit organization that is taking a leadership role to make the National Archives Experience possible.

Charles was also an avid user of the National Archives. His last film, Berga: Soldiers of Another War, includes a good bit of footage from our holdings.

The film tells the story of 350 U.S. soldiers captured by the Nazis in 1944 in the Battle of the Bulge. The American soldiers, who were Jewish, or who looked Jewish, were sent to a concentration camp, where many of them died.

Charles was assigned to one of the units involved in the battle, and could have very well been with the captured soldiers, had it not been for a medical condition that left him in the United States while his unit deployed to Europe. Years later, even as he knew his own time was short, he was intent on telling the story of his comrades.

Charles once said, "Many people know about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, but few know the treasures held in the millions of feet of film, in countless maps and pictures and letters. . . . Story after story is revealed from the work that is accomplished every day at the Archives—the incomparable truths, all telling and retelling what is the essential American journey."

It is my hope that you will find your own story, whether it is held in records of the National Archives or somewhere else, for it is these stories that connect us both to those who have come before us and to those that will follow us.

I also hope that you will come visit us, either while you are in town, or at a regional archives or Presidential library across the country, or virtually on the Internet, or visit when the Charters of Freedom are back on display and the National Archives Experience is open to the public.

In closing, I would like to share with you a quote from Thomas Jefferson who said, "Information is the currency of democracy."

I have talked here about the stories that can be found in records and how they can connect us to our past, but there is an even greater role that records play in our society. You see, the National Archives is not meant to be a cultural institution, for it is a vital, core functioning agency of our democratic Government.

At the heart of our democracy is the ability of our citizens to inspect for themselves the actions of their Government, and to hold their public officials accountable for their actions.

I believe that it is a true testament to an open democracy that not only can the public come to a National Archives facilities to see records, but virtually anyone can access records online as well. So, not only do I hope you come use your records—because the records we hold really do belong to you—but I hope you will also keep in mind how these records undergird and sustain the democracy that our ancestors imagined, created, shaped, and fought for.

For it is through the interest of patrons like yourself that we prove everyday that records matter—for us, for our future, and for the future of our democracy.

Thank you.

About the National Archives >

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
1-86-NARA-NARA or 1-866-272-6272

.