About the National Archives

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States June 27, 2007

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
June 27, 2007, Washington, DC

Exactly a year ago tonight, in the middle of the night, I was wading through ankle-deep water in the basement of the National Archives Building, watching the flooding without the ability to affect its impact. A man approached me and introduced himself as an official of the company hired to pump the water out of the building. He asked if I was the Archivist, and when I acknowledged that I was, he said that he wished to reassure me that the Charters of Freedom were perfectly safe. "They’re all safe and dry," he said—something I already knew, but then he added, "Yes, they’re all in the trunk of my car."

While I decided whether I would bop him one or simply walk away, he apologized for the joke. I have to admit, however, that he achieved his purpose. I began chuckling and relaxing and allowing my staff to do their work. That gentleman is with us this evening, and I would like to acknowledge him. Dean McKinney, would you raise your hand? A word of advice to all of you: If your facility is flooded or burning or otherwise being damaged, find a McKinney and trust him to calm you down.

Let me begin by recognizing the rich diversity among the hundreds of organizations represented at this conference, a tribute to its organizers but also to each and every participant: from public libraries to civil rights institutes, from state museums, libraries, and archives to Native American cultural centers, from university-based facilities to historical societies and private art museums, from ethno-cultural collections to distinctive personal or regional entities. And that hardly exhausts the range of organizations represented here. Truthfully, I should be calling the roll now, acknowledging the unique richness of American cultural life represented here, but perhaps you will accept a round of applause instead, one expressing our gratitude for being together here and to the sponsors who have brought us together.

I want first to thank the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and its remarkable director, Anne-Imelda Radice, for having invited me to speak to you at this National Conservation Summit organized by IMLS and Heritage Preservation. The summit’s theme is "Connecting to Collections," in my time tonight, I would like to share with you some reflections on the concrete themes of this two-day dialogue: "Connecting to Expertise," "Connecting to Technology," "Connecting to Funders," and "Connecting to the Public."

These themes took a number of us to Mississippi, Louisiana, and elsewhere on the Gulf Coast, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, in furious, if poorly funded and barely organized, efforts to rescue museum, library, and archival collections of every size and value. (I notice a co-conspirator from that expedition on the IMLS program, Hank Holmes of Mississippi, and I should note that FEMA still does not recognize our efforts as deserving full representation in FEMA. Funding support and legitimacy—all the more reason for those gathered here for this important conference to speak up.
First, about the preservation of our collections—however small and uncostly—and the need for us to defend the importance and urgency of caring properly for these precious artifacts and vital records. I consider a crucial and absorbing part of my work as Archivist of the United States to involve support for, and strengthening of, the partnerships (private and public sectors) through which we care for our cultural heritage, whether in emergencies or at normal moments.

A personal example: In the National Archives headquarters building just a few blocks from here, there are housed and preserved under my personal supervision and that of my staff the three most important documents of our nation, its founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

One of them, the Declaration of Independence, was displayed in this building for 34 years, when it was the Patent Office Building, in what was then the Hall of Models, the first major exhibition space in Washington.

But over the years, the Declaration was not preserved properly, and today, it has faded to the point where it is difficult to read the courageous words that the signers agreed to, risking their fortunes and their futures. Now in the care of the National Archives, the Declaration is sealed in a special, environmentally controlled encasement, shielded from bright lights, and secured and guarded around the clock.

These are extraordinary steps taken to preserve an extraordinary document, which is much more than what we do for most other documents under our supervision. But it provides an example of the high priority we Americans place on preservation and conservation—as well as an example of what can happen, even to an historic document, absent proper preservation.

As most of you know, it was only the decision by then-Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, in 1820 to hire an engraver, William J. Stone, to design and execute an engraving of the Declaration—at the cost of its remaining ink—which has assured continuing access to this beloved and beautiful reproduction of the hallowed original.

And yet there, in the Rotunda of the National Archives, the public remains enamored of that vaguely illegible original Declaration of Independence, revering its faded contents.

Why? Why dedicate ourselves to preserving, in our museums and libraries and archives, original artifacts, documents, art works, photos, paintings, and other objects whose value remains irreplaceable to us if not priceless? The reasons, of course, are many and some obvious:

  • They represent the range of achievements and diversity of our national heritage;
  • They are the primary cultural sources for those of us who (from divergent disciplines) study the past and seek to learn from it;
  • They embody the stories which we most treasure about our civilization and its richness.

And these materials, indeed, allow us in both physical and metaphorical ways to "touch" the past, to comprehend what "eyewitnesses" to the documents or artifacts saw or thought when they were first created.

Why is preserving the original documents, art, photographs and other objects we hold so important to us all? Obviously, they represent the vibrancy and diversity of our heritage. They provide a link to a different time. They are primary sources for those of us who study the past and seek to learn from it. They tell stories and teach us about ourselves and each other.

They are as close as we can get to having been there. And proper preservation of these collections, in libraries, museums, and archives large and small, will allow future generations to "touch" them many years from now.

An original painting allows us to stand before it, exactly where the artist did, to enjoy and understand the brushwork, the colors, the size, the play of light on the paint. An original antique chair helps us understand the kind of daily surroundings of Americans and how they lived their lives. The original manuscript of a famous book allows us to see the thoughts and notations of the author as he or she polishes what will become a literary triumph.

These artifacts and documents and images represent the primary assets of our cultural institutions and are the reason for our existence as curators, guardians, and stewards of history. We are here to ensure that they survive, intact and authentic, for future generations. They reflect what we want others to know about the communities we represent. They reflect who we are and why what we do is important—regardless of their size, splendor, richness, or monetary value.

A personal story: for 16 years I taught at Smith College in western Massachusetts, which housed a far-from-gigantic but exquisite collection, both archives and artifacts, on the history of women in this country called the Sophia Smith Collection, named for the college’s initial benefactor. It was the center of pride and joy for all of us who passed through its rooms, used its documents, and enjoyed its historic contents, and I recall it fondly to this day.

In short, we must speak out loud and clear about the need to preserve our collections and take action to care for the collections in our institutions. The stakes could not be higher. Without proper preservation and conservation, much of our heritage is in dire jeopardy—and at risk of being lost forever.

Simply asking and pleading for more resources for preservation, however, will not be enough. We must be more pro-active, more aggressive in seeking these resources. We must ensure that governing bodies, especially the U.S. Congress and state legislatures, understand this need and their obligation to provide essential resources. Finally, we must fully integrate preservation care into the life of our institutions and all that we do.

The task is daunting, and the recent heritage health index provides little comfort. This survey of museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, and scientific research organizations found that millions upon millions of works of art, historic objects, photographs, natural science specimens, and rare and unique books, periodicals, and scrapbooks were at risk and required immediate care.

* * *

Preservation, ironically, is both more difficult today than it ever has been and the best it ever has been. But even with the best preservation care, we face the prospect of devastating natural disasters, such as the hurricanes that struck the Gulf Coast not so long ago.

Theft is also a constant threat. During normal hours, visitors can sometimes walk off with small objects from a museum or records from an archive or library. The problem is compounded at those numerous cultural institutions that cannot afford adequate human or mechanical supervision—our smaller, less endowed facilities. Nor do we help matters by trying, as a number of such institutions do, to hide the fact of such thefts rather than publicize and seek out and punish the culprits, while regaining the items stolen.

In addition, the threat of terrorism is now something we must live with every day. Collections of all types are at risk of being lost, destroyed or damaged, or rendered inaccessible in a serious terror attack on one of our large cities.

Operating costs, especially for energy, security, and personnel, are rising, increasing the challenge of providing the optimum storage environment.

* * *

But even when resources are limited, we must all make it clear that preservation remains a high priority at our institutions:

We must spell out our goals for preservation in strategic plans or whatever documents guide our institutions from year to year—make preservation not just understood, but an explicit mission, with goals and criteria to measure progress.

Let us ensure that our staffs recognize that preserving collections is a joint responsibility, with most staff members having a major role in accomplishing the goal—from how the collections are handled, to the way they are displayed, to assessing needs, to allocation of resources. It’s important to clearly designate who on your staffs have the leadership responsibility for collection care.

We need to create the proper environment to protect collections from damage and avoid the need for costly remediation. This is our most effective approach to achieving preservation goals.

It is also crucial to provide safe conditions for our holdings, as safe as they can be from fires and floods and environmental dangers as well as from thieves. Conditions should be monitored and evaluated regularly to ensure such safety.

We should develop emergency plans to spell out how we will react to disasters or a terrorism attack. If a disaster comes, there will be very little time to consider our actions, so those decisions must be made in advance.

Above all, we have to learn what is needed to preserve the collections, drawing on the conservationists and preservationists to obtain the expertise needed.

Nor should we be discouraged by the often-frustrating quest for funding from private sector and Federal and state sources—even when the results fall well short of expectations. We need to make incremental progress and set realistic goals.

* * *

Coupled with our efforts to raise the level of awareness about the importance of preservation should come an increasing emphasis on access. That is, of course, why we are preserving these records and artifacts and images—so Americans can see, enjoy and study them and, in the case of records, use them as important research tools.

Increased accessibility will bring a greater appreciation of the value of our collections and their preservation needs. And technology will play a major role—by providing both a means of preservation through digitization and a means of access via the Internet. But we will need to find ways to harness this rapidly advancing technology to meet our preservation goals while not jeopardizing the resources we put into traditional collections.

In closing, I urge all of you to reach out not only to your old friends but to seek new audiences to tell the stories of our institutions, what we do, and why our work is important.

Tell them what is happening to artifacts and documents in your care and why it’s necessary to confront the problems now. Try to find your own personal Dean McKinney to calm you down for the challenges ahead—and plunge in!

Finally, as you embark on your important work—the work of this summit, for example—keep in mind an organizational lesson you are likely to encounter, whatever your chosen field, as summarized in the well-known "six phases of a project."

First phase: enthusiasm
Second: disillusionment
Third: panic
Fourth: search for the guilty
Fifth: punishment of the innocent
and Last: praise and honors for the non-participants.

May all of your projects in life begin and end with the first phase—enthusiasm—or, at worst, jump from phase one to phase six without encountering the others.