About the National Archives

Prepared remarks made at the American Political Science Association course "An Introduction to Archival Research," in the National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

September 1, 2010

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero
David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

The AOTUS Blog


What's an Archivist?

The Archivist was introduced by Jessica Kratz of the Center for Legislative Archives of the National Archives.

Thank you, Jessica, and welcome all of you to the National Archives.

We’re pleased that we could be a part of your association’s annual meeting and to play host to you here at the Archives.  I understand many of you are from academia, and we’re always happy to be able to get our message back to college and university campuses.

All of you know what the National Archives is. We’re the Nation’s recordkeeper.  But the Archives is a lot more interesting and intriguing than that sounds.  Let me explain.

We are the final destination of the most important records of the United States Government — that one to three percent deemed by departments and agencies to be important enough for permanent preservation here.

But what you see in this building is only a fraction of what’s in the Archives. We have 10 billion pages of paper documents, along with millions of photographs, miles of audio tape and video tape and film, maps, charts and countless artifacts.

And we’re taking in electronic records at warp speed — that’s the wave of the future.
Not all of these records are in this building — not by a long shot.  We have much more at our facility in College Park, Maryland, and at 14 regional archives all around the country.  We also run the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, which keeps the records of some 56 million former soldiers, sailors, and airmen as well as the records of former civilian employees.

And we operate 13 Presidential libraries that house the records of the last 13 Presidents — from Herbert Hoover onward — and provide an invaluable record of each President’s tenure and the times in which he was in office.

In addition, we store and make available to Federal agencies another 80 billion pages of Federal records in our 17 Federal Records Centers around the country.  These are records that departments and agencies still use but have no place to store. We store them and deliver them to agencies when they ask, usually the same or next day.  Eventually the most important of these will be permanently preserved with us.

And, of course, we have the nation’s Charters of Freedom — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.  They’re just down the hall in the Rotunda.

And we are the folks who have turned around on a dime to provide the records of Supreme Court nominees or documents related to something that has just popped up in the news.
                               
I know many of you are new to the idea of researching original records here in the Archives, and the experts on the program today will help you get your bearings.

I think you may be surprised to learn what we have here in the Archives. I know I was when I became Archivist late last year.  And I’m frequently surprised and intrigued when someone on the staff mentions another interesting “piece of history” that we have in our holdings.

Let me whet your appetite a bit.

We have the nation’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, which was the governing document in the early days after independence but before our Founding Fathers  wrote the Constitution that governs us today.

There are treaties. The Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War. . .and there’s Thomas Jefferson’s secret message to Congress asking for funds for Lewis and Clark to explore what was to become the Louisiana Purchase.

And there’s the 1803 Louisiana Purchase treaty with France in which we bought the Louisiana Territory and doubled the size of the United States. It’s signed by Napoleon.
There’s also a telegram President Lincoln received telling him of the surrender of Fort Sumter — as well as the Emancipation Proclamation, which is so sensitive to light that we display it only a few days each year.

We’ve also got the cancelled check we gave to the Russians to buy Alaska, as well as a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt from a little boy in Cuba asking for a $10 bill.  Would history have been different if FDR had sent Fidel Castro $10?

We have all the official copies of landmark legislation and landmark Supreme Court decisions. 

We’ve got the drafts of FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech with his scribbling and handwritten revisions as well as the document signed by all parties aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay 65 years ago tomorrow that ended World War II.

We’ve also got the press statement from 1948 announcing our recognition of Israel, with Harry Truman’s handwritten revisions.  You’ll also find notes on drafts of Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address and John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address from 1961.

And, locked up in College Park, are the Dictabelt recording of gunshots heard when President Kennedy was shot and the tape from President Nixon’s White House with the famous 18 ½-minute gap.  Experts have sought to extract information from both of them over the years, but we may have to await future technology to determine if there’s anything more there.

Finally, just last week, we accepted from the Huntington Library in Los Angeles two copies of the original Nuremberg Laws. The Nazis used these as the legal underpinning for the persecution of the Jews during World War II, actions that eventually led to the Holocaust.  They even bear the signature of Hitler himself.
                                       
As users of the National Archives, you’ll be joining some pretty distinguished company.
Ken Burns has mined our holdings extensively for his documentaries on the Civil War and World War II.  Movie makers come here to find footage of historical events they plan to replicate on the silver screen.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough sat for hours researching page after page of documents from the Truman years at the Truman library in Independence, Missouri.

There are countless journalists, historians, documentarians, and filmmakers who come here to mine the historical records we preserve.

Former Presidents have come to their own libraries to examine records of their administrations. Sitting presidents come to visit the Rotunda and view the Constitution they have sworn to “preserve, protect and defend.”

Even the popular TV show Jeopardy has been here to use our documents to test the historical knowledge of its contestants. 

If you were to talk to people in our research rooms, you’d find that many of them are working on dissertations or books or doing research for lawsuits or newspaper articles.
So when you are preparing to write your  books, articles, and dissertations, please think of us first when you need original documents.

One of the things we promote here at the Archives is the idea that these records are not here just to take up space, just so we can say we have them.

They’re here to be used by those who come to our facilities.

These records document the rights and entitlements of American citizens. They provide a record of government actions so those who govern us can be held accountable. And they serve as the complete record of the American experience.

Many of our most requested records can be accessed online, and we add to our online offerings constantly.
                                               
You’re fortunate today to have some experts from our staff on a diverse array of records – from Congress, the federal courts, the executive branch agencies and departments and our holdings in our regional archives around the country.

And we have people with us who can tell you what you can do online before you come to the Archives so you can make the most of your valuable time while you’re on site in one of our facilities. 

I want to thank our staff for taking time away from their busy schedules — we all have busy schedules at the National Archives! — to talk to you today.

And I especially want to again thank our special guest speakers today from the Library of Congress, the University of Delaware, and Catholic University for joining us today.

Before you leave, I invite you to visit the Rotunda to see the Charters of Freedom — and see how the signatures of our Founding Fathers leap off the page to take you back to another time when our democracy was founded.

If you have more time, stroll through the Public Vaults to see a multi-media presentation of American history.

And in the O’Brien Gallery you’ll find Part One of our two part exhibit, “Discovering the Civil War,” to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the war.  Part One closes in a few days, and Part Two will open in November.

Again, thanks for coming, and enjoy the class and the rest of the conference.

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