About the National Archives


Archivist of the United States

July 1, 2003
Washington, DC

Two hundred and twenty-seven years ago today, our country was poised on the brink of a historic decision. Three weeks earlier the Continental Congress had recessed, after voting to postpone consideration of the resolution of Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, who had called for a radical, treasonous move—independence from the British crown.

The congressional delegates most likely knew that the move toward independence was close at hand, for Thomas Jefferson was pressed into service to draft a statement presenting the colonies' case for self rule.

The Congress reconvened on July 1st, 1776, and the following day the Lee Resolution for independence was adopted. Immediately after this, debate on the language of the Declaration began and continued through July 3rd and late into the afternoon of July 4th.

Finally, church bells rang out over Philadelphia, signaling that the Declaration of Independence had been adopted, and the manuscript was taken to the shop of John Dunlap, the official printer to the Congress. In what can arguably be called the most important "rush" printing job in American history, Dunlap turned out several hundred copies of the Declaration the night of July 4, 1776. The next morning, these copies were dispatched by members of Congress to various assemblies, conventions, and committees of safety as well as to the commanders of Continental troops.

Today, 25 copies of the Dunlap Broadside are known to still be in existence, including one in NARA's holdings. Another copy of the broadside is touring the country as part of Norman Lear's Declaration of Independence Road Trip, which combines the exhibition of the broadside with elements of education, entertainment, and community outreach. The goal of this project is to inspire citizens, especially young people, to participate in civic life; to exercise their rights; and to vote. And we are certainly pleased that Mr. Lear's road trip will join us at Union Station for our Fourth of July Celebration.

Of course, one of the most widely held misconceptions in American History is that the Declaration of Independence was actually signed on July 4th. In truth, the words approved by the Congress on July 4th were engrossed on parchment and signed by most of the delegates on August 2nd, when the 56 Signers of the Declaration knowingly risked their lives, their security, and the safety of their families to take a stand for independence.

Right now the Declaration is in the final stages of conservation work, but on September 17th, it will be returned to public exhibition in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building, along with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. As you recall, these historic documents—together called the Charters of Freedom—were taken from the Rotunda on July 5th 2001—for the renovation of the building and much needed conservation work on the Charters.

Our conservators, after taking each historic parchment from the helium-filled encasements sealed 50 years ago, painstakingly examined each letter with a binocular microscope to look for loose flakes of ink. They then applied tiny drops of a gelatin that is made by cooking small parchment scraps to reattach insecure flakes. Old tears were cleaned and mended, and dirt and other foreign substances were removed.

Other staff, assisted by a panel of outside distinguished experts, worked with our friends at the National Institute of Standards Technology to build new encasements for America's most precious documents. Each document will be mounted onto a platform with legs that attach to an aluminum base that has a black surface, against which the parchment appears to float. The encasement frame and base are filled with humidified argon, and small portholes in the side of the encasement allow a narrow light beam to travel through the base of the encasement to monitor the interior atmosphere and relative humidity.

Of course, when Thomas Jefferson drafted America's first words of liberty, I doubt whether he or any of his colleagues thought about the toll that the air and sunlight of the ensuing centuries might take on the physical manifestation of their ideals. But today, the National Archives is proud to have the responsibility to care for the Charters of Freedom and happy that Constitution Day, this September 17th, the newly renovated Rotunda of the National Archives will be rededicated and the Charters unveiled in a special ceremony that includes top officials from all three branches of the Federal Government.

And at 10 a.m. on September 18th, the Rotunda will once again be open to the public so that anyone who wishes can see the parchment of the Declaration 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.

Now while the Charters of Freedom may well be the highest profile documents we care for, all the records we hold play a vital role in our democracy. For more than six decades, the National Archives and Records Administration—NARA for short—has preserved and provided access to the records from all three branches of the Federal Government. And not just in Washington, DC, and College Park, but in regional archives and Presidential libraries all across the country.

Without these records, we would not know or be able to understand our past. We would not be able to hold our elected officials accountable for their actions. We would not be able to claim our rights and entitlements. Without these records, we would no longer live in a democracy that could be sustained.

This accountability of the Government to its people and the protection of their rights is the very cornerstone of the democracy in which we live. For our history is found not only in Constitutional amendments and Presidential proclamations, but also in census records which enumerate each individual of our population... veterans records which detail the service of the courageous men and women who have fought for our rights... and immigration records which give us a glimpse of the people whose dreams have shaped our country.

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

Let me give you a few examples of how the work we do and the records we care for play a role in the lives of citizens, communities, and our country as a whole.

A California resident had grown up in the United States and had always thought she was a U.S. citizen. But when she applied for Social Security benefits, she was told that she would have to prove her citizenship. After being advised what documentation she would need, she made contacts with staff at our Laguna Niguel Regional Archives. Complicated by her parents' immigration from Russia and her mother's family relocating to Canada where she was born, the key was proving her mother's U.S. citizenship. Many staff hours later at four more of our facilities searching for evidence, it was in the end border admission records that delivered the needed evidence.

Now this may seem like a lot of work for a lot of people all over the country, but it's an illustration of what we do at NARA to help citizens protect the rights and entitlements they deserve.

Another example of this...

A gentleman came to the National Archives in College Park looking for proof of the boundaries of some land he had bought in West Virginia. A new neighbor of his had aggressively been making claims that parts of the property actually belonged to him. NARA staff helped this gentleman locate a 1937 aerial photo survey of his land which clearly showed the property boundaries and proved the land belonged to him, not his neighbor. This was all the evidence needed to disprove the neighbor's case in court.

But it's not just individuals who can be helped by records.

Here is an example of how Government records can touch the life of a community. We all remember the hunt for the snipers in our area last year. What you may not know is that NARA, specifically the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, played a role in the investigation into these shootings.

When investigators had a lead on the suspects, the folks in St. Louis were called on in the middle of the night to find the military personnel folder of John Allen Williams and send it to Federal agencies investigating the shootings. Obviously, this information was valuable to not only the task force investigators but later the press in keeping the public informed.

On a broader scale, as history has unfolded in Iraq over the past months, it has become even clearer the important role that records play in any government.

For throughout history in times of crisis, documentary evidence takes center stage. 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—processing, privacy, and security issues aside.

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, records form the very foundation of our democracy.

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 Federal 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 everyday, 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 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. Citizens will no longer need to come to a NARA facility to find information. And once accessioned, it will be accessible almost instantly from virtually any computer. Also, the technology will be scalable, so it can be used by other Federal agencies, state and local governments, libraries, colleges and universities, and historical organizations.

Knowing that we could not build ERA by ourselves, we have worked to develop partnerships with other agencies and organizations in both the public and private sector in order to broaden our knowledge base and find potential solutions that are sustainable well into the future. Since 1998, we have worked with partners such as the San Diego Super Computer Center, the Department of Defense, and NASA on research projects to better understand the problems associated with electronic records, as well as directions for solutions.

Right now we are working with partners and potential users to define the requirements of the Electronic Records Archives. 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 document an individual right, provide accountability of a Government action, sustain a business practice, 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.

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 our regular researchers, that they came, showed respect, and left hardly realizing where they had been, or learning much about the Charters or about the millions of other records at the National Archives.

When we received Administration and Congressional support for the much needed renovation of the National Archives Building, we saw the opportunity for the visitor involvement to be much more—not just for those walking in off Constitution Avenue—but those we could reach through an even more active web presence.

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 as visitors will see our founding documents in their new, more accessible exhibit, along with key records that illuminate the creation and continuing impact of the Charters.

In addition, a multilanguage audio tool will give visitors more insight to the significance of the role the Charters have played in U.S. history, and in our Government 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.

In We the People visitors might discover whether records of their family are in the Archives, or hear the eyewitness accounts of Reconstruction found in Freedman's Bureau records—one of the most important sources for African American genealogy.

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.

Another component of the National Archives Experience, which will open in the spring of next year is a new 275-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.

But this is not all.

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.

None of this would be possible without the support of the Foundation for the National Archives, a not-for-profit organization that is taking a leadership role to make the National Archives Experience possible.

It is our intent that visitors leave the National Archives Experience with a new appreciation for the role that records play in our society. That they will see how records can help us to accurately understand our past, and how records enable us, as citizens, to hold our government accountable for its actions, and claim our rights, entitlements and liberties within a democratic society.

And that they see how they or their families are a part of the Archives—and start to think about opportunities to see and use one of our facilities, not just here, but at Presidential Libraries and Regional Archives around the country, as well as on the internet.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "Information is the currency of democracy."

Although I doubt Mr. Jefferson ever envisioned the billions of government records now entrusted to NARA, I believe he would be very impressed with our mission and the way we carry it out.

For every day our employees perform the day-to-day tasks that allow us to provide ready access to the essential evidence of our Government.

Staffers assist researchers in locating information, welcome visitors, help Federal agencies manage their records, painstakingly preserve historic documents, and respond to hundreds of requests for specific records.

They build partnerships to advance research into solutions for preserving electronic records, test and troubleshoot new systems designed to make more information accessible online, and develop and maintain web sites that bring the National Archives to the public.

They fill the requests of veterans for copies of their service records and teach schoolchildren and adults alike the legacy of the Americans who came before us.

Each day they do a job that is vital to the functioning of our Government.

While Thomas Jefferson recognized the importance of information in a democracy, I believe that he and our other Founding Fathers also knew what has been proven over and over throughout history and at NARA facilities across the country everyday... that records matter—for us, for our future, and for the future of our democracy.

Thank you.